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What We’re Reading This Summer
By The New Yorker
“ Groovy Bob ,” by Harriet Vyner
For your summer reading, it might be nice to go with something relatively light. This could mean a fast-paced contemporary novel whose specifics you’ll probably forget as soon as you finish it, but my preference is for the oral history, which can teach us something meaningful about a particular era from a variety of perspectives, with the bonus of some juicy gossip. One fine example of the genre that I picked up recently is “Groovy Bob,” by the writer and curator Harriet Vyner. Originally published in 1999 and reissued in expanded form in 2016, it features numerous interviews to present the life story of the art dealer Robert Fraser, whose self-titled gallery epitomized the newly hip, class-scrambling world of London in the mid-to-late nineteen-sixties. The son of a wealthy banker, Fraser was educated at Eton, and served as a young officer in Uganda in the late fifties. After a pit stop in New York, he returned to England, and over the next decade emerged as one of the country’s most important tastemakers, introducing British audiences to artists such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Dubuffet, while living faster and harder than almost any of his peers. (A tall order when your friends are the Rolling Stones.) The best-dressed man in any room, aloof and upper-class and ineffably cool, Fraser was also a junkie and a homosexual, a man who was preoccupied, in the words of Mick Jagger, with “bridging two worlds. And having a great time in the process, a very hedonistic time.” Living on the edge almost always has its price, however: in 1967, Fraser was busted for heroin possession while partying at Keith Richards’s country estate Redlands, and was imprisoned for months. After closing his gallery’s doors in 1969 (he was by all accounts a very bad businessperson), Fraser drifted, seeking enlightenment in India for a few years, then returning to his home country—and to hard drugs. He also opened a second iteration of his gallery—a much more indifferent endeavor, which he ran until his death, of AIDS -related causes, in 1986. This is not an especially happy story, but it’s also not a moralistic, cautionary tale. Rather, it presents a thick portrait of a now mostly forgotten man, who, for a short while, shined so bright that he was able to almost single-handedly define his cultural moment. Jagger again: “And that was his blaze, his quick swathe through London. He found a part.” — Naomi Fry
“ The Secret Lives of Church Ladies ,” by Deesha Philyaw
“My mother’s peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife.” So begins “Peach Cobbler,” the fourth of nine beguiling short stories assembled in Deesha Philyaw’s collection, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.” Philyaw is a voyeur of a kind, training her gaze on the furtive activities of Black women. The milieus of the stories vary, but the mood threading them together is one of confession, sometimes in the theological sense. In “Peach Cobbler,” the daughter of a pastor’s mistress confuses the man with the grand authority he represents. “Eula” depicts two best friends who participate in a tradition of secret lovemaking on New Year’s Eve. Philyaw does not write erotica per se, but the thrill I get from turning over these short stories reminds me of first encountering, as a teen-ager, the pseudonymous Zane, the legendary writer of Black erotic fiction. Throughout the collection, Philyaw catches her characters in the midst of doing something “bad,” by which I mean, in the midst of inventing their own personal freedom. — Doreen St. Félix
“ The Europeans ,” by Orlando Figes
A good biography can be just as escapist as a novel, immersing the reader in the minutiae of a time, place, and character other than her own. Orlando Figes’s triple biography, “The Europeans,” illustrates the lives of his three subjects—the theatre manager Louis Viardot, the singer Pauline Viardot, and the novelist Ivan Turgenev—but also captures the galvanizing atmosphere of the nineteenth-century culture industry as Europe cohered into a unified entity. Gossip is the book’s hook: the Viardots and Turgenev are enmeshed in a long-term love triangle, with the older Louis tacitly accepting Pauline and Ivan’s enduring affair. Pauline, however, never seems to fully return the novelist’s love, and in old age the relationship settles into an emotionally intimate friendship. In the meantime, the three quarrel, split up across national borders, and cohabitate in various villas, ranging in location from the cosmopolitan German spa town Baden-Baden to Paris. In our own chaotic era, it’s comforting to read about how the throuple’s members persevered with their art amid various personal and geopolitical dramas. Figes is particularly good at pinpointing how the technological innovations of the century changed the world his subjects inhabited. The Viardots frequented cultural centers that became stops on the increasingly crowded U.K.-European tourist circuit, a beaten track reinforced by guidebooks produced by the London publisher John Murray—which, Figes writes, “did more than anything to standardize the experience of foreign travel.” Trains likewise brought disparate places—and the élites who lived there—closer together. At one point, Turgenev takes a disappointingly rainy and lonely seaside holiday in Ventnor, U.K., where he begins writing “Fathers and Sons.” Figes memorably describes the scene: “Turgenev sat down at the writing table in his room and began his masterpiece. He had nothing else to do.” — Kyle Chayka
“ Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black ,” by Cookie Mueller
Semiotext(e)’s new, expanded edition of Cookie Mueller’s 1990 essay collection “Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black” is a portal into a world of radical freedom—into Mueller’s dive-bar pinball machine of a life and into her mind, thrown open to anything, “so open that at times I hear the wind whistling through it.” Mueller was, among other things, a Dreamlander, acting in multiple John Waters films (Waters described her as a “Janis Joplin-meets-redneck-hippie with a little bit of glamour drag thrown in”), an exotic dancer, a coke dealer, a house cleaner, a sailor, an “unwed welfare mother,” and, perhaps above all else, a writer of cracked, profound integrity and adventure. The volume begins when Mueller is fifteen, juggling two lovers: a hospitalized alcoholic teen-age boy, and a girl named Gloria, soon to be dead when rogue silicone from her implants reaches her heart. By eighteen, she’s in Haight-Ashbury, where a single day contains a run-in with the Manson girls (“like ducks quacking over corn”), an LSD-capping party, a demon-summoning ceremony, a Grateful Dead concert at San Quentin State Prison, a rape at gunpoint (she tricks her rapist into giving her a ride home and then jumps out of the car screaming, “That man just raped me”), and a dawn nightcap of cocaine, meth, and philosophical musings about the lost city of Atlantis. She moves to Provincetown, collects food stamps, and assembles a life of marginal glamour in a barely insulated saltbox filled with fellow-Dreamlanders. Nothing really scares her until childbirth, an event that makes her see a blood moon, constellations rising in fast motion, her body sawed in half. But by the time she’s in New York, in her thirties, she’s figured out that she just has to get home by dawn to wake her son, Max, up for school. Before Mueller died at age forty from AIDS -related pneumonia, she wrote a series of “fables”—one’s titled “I Hear America Sinking or a Suburban Girl Who Is Naive and Stupid Finds Her Reward”—and an unsound, affecting health-advice column for The East Village Eye . (In one of the installments of the latter, she urges readers worried about the AIDS epidemic to be compassionate and to “relax.” By way of precautions, she advises, “Keep your body very strong and don’t forget your sense of humor.”) Mueller’s unflappability, her refusal of stasis and self-pity, her hunger for beauty, her readiness to find it where few else would look—all of it adds up into a singular code for living, in which the worst thing a person could do is flinch. — Jia Tolentino
“ Manhunt ,” by Gretchen Felker-Martin
For the past several years, for assorted, fairly obvious reasons, I’ve been drawn to stories of apocalypse. After the first few bleak novels, I realized that what drew me to these worlds was not some desire for depictions of chaos; rather, I crave their orderliness. The true fantasy of these post-catastrophe narratives is the imposition of new rules, within which new ways of living can be derived like mathematical proofs: the infection travels thusly, the infrastructure has fallen in such and such a way, the powerful baddies are organized like so; therefore, the methods of survival turn out to be this, and that, and the other. In “Manhunt,” by a mile the most gripping and visceral apocalypse novel I’ve read during this disaster binge, a raging virus transforms anyone with a testosterone-heavy endocrine system into a ferocious rutting creature. Trying to stay both alive and sane in this wasteland are two trans women, Fran and Beth, who hunt zombified men in order to consume their testicles as a source of desperately needed estrogen. (“Just pretend it’s one of those fancy chocolates with the gold foil. You know. A Ferrero Rocher,” Fran urges herself, as she downs a gland. “Pretend they’re oysters on the half shell.”) Fran and Beth, in turn, are being hunted by fascistic, heavily armed militias of anti-trans women, while simultaneously trying to avoid conscription into the private labor armies of wealthy “bunker brats,” who are riding out the apocalypse behind fortified walls. Fran and Beth fight, kill, get injured, and fuck stupendously, all of it described in extraordinarily physical prose that swings from poetic to hilarious to repulsive, often within the same breath. I’m a fairly squeamish person—really, there are few more lightweight—and there were times when the intensity of the language and the barrage of bodily fluids demanded that I take breaks for brain cleansing. (I suspect that Felker-Martin would take my regular blanch-outs as a compliment: “I write the most disgusting books in the English language,” she announces proudly in her Patreon bio.) Still, every time I thought that I couldn’t go further, I found myself drawn back: “Manhunt” is a filthy, furious delight; within its tense, gruesome premise live roundly human characters, with big, unwieldy emotions. It’s a shockingly tender exploration of genders and bodies, of violence as a part of nature, of the way love is a tool of survival. — Helen Rosner
“ The School for Good Mothers ,” by Jessamine Chan, and “ Elsewhere ,” by Alexis Schaitkin
The warehouses of literature are full of wicked mothers, but the bad-mom-as-antihero trend feels more recent. Its trailblazers were memoirists and novelists—Rachel Cusk, Doris Lessing—who confronted the bad mom’s haters while pleading her case (which went something like, you try gentle parenting while your kid is flinging oatmeal at the cat). But lately I’ve been thinking about the migration of “bad” moms into speculative fiction, especially as the Supreme Court’s discarding of the constitutional right to abortion means that pregnant women will be increasingly surveilled and criminalized. Alexis Schaitkin’s “Elsewhere,” for instance, pictures a secluded town where mothers periodically vanish into the clouds. What draws “the affliction” to some women but not others is unknown, but it may relate to the quality of their mothering—too reckless, too excessive, too meek, too feral. “The School for Good Mothers,” by Jessamine Chan, makes a grimmer proposition. The protagonist, Frida, a Chinese American woman, is sent to a reëducation facility after leaving her toddler at home alone for a couple of hours. Frida is given a jumpsuit and incessantly monitored; every gesture, tone of voice, and action must meet a standard of parental perfection—a standard by which Frida’s kisses, for example, are said to “lack a fiery core of maternal love.” The book is a bleak and scalding satire of the cult of selfless caregiving, and also a soulful meditation on the bond between parents and children. Something mysterious in Chan’s characters, even the automated ones, resists social engineering; this uncontrollability makes them interesting. For me, the novel reanimated an obvious truth: that personality— life—inheres in the decisions we make, and that we are not ourselves, not alive, when we cannot choose. — Katy Waldman
“ None Like Us ,” by Stephen Best
The literary critic Stephen Best begins his 2018 book, “None Like Us,” in notice of a “communitarian impulse” in Black studies. “It announces itself in the assumption that in writing about the black past ‘we’ discover ‘our’ history,” he writes. “It registers in the suggestion that what makes black people black is their continued navigation of an ‘afterlife of slavery.’ ” It could be called melancholic, an identity sustained by exclusion—from history, from politics, the hallowed sites of culture. Best is queasy about this, not for its mood but, rather, the presumption of affirmation to be found on the other side of subjection. Instead, he finds inspiration in works—El Anatsui’s sculptures, Toni Morrison’s “ A Mercy ”—that enact “a kind of thought that literary critics are not yet willing to entertain,” that is, “freedom from constraining conceptions of blackness as authenticity, tradition, and legitimacy; of history as inheritance, memory, and social reproduction; of diaspora as kinship, belonging, and dissemination.” In his study of these texts, Best picks apart the tropes that are often treated as foregone conclusions: that the heirs of a people made chattel would incur and even embrace the terms foisted upon them, that the first-person plural of Black studies is monolithic. I came to this book with an honest portion of chagrin: How often have I intoned a word like “community” in my appraisal of a novel or television show, taking that word for granted as one that exists with some definite sort of racial continuity rather than something to be powerfully disarticulated? The title and provocation of the book come from the abolitionist David Walker, who, in his “ Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World ,” first published in 1829, prayed that “none like us ever may live again until time shall be no more.” Disaffiliation pairs well with a spritz, I’ve learned. — Lauren Michele Jackson
“ Willful Disregard ,” by Lena Andersson
When readers meet Ester Nilsson, the heroine of Lena Andersson’s 2013 novel, “Willful Disregard,” they are told that she perceives reality “with devastating precision.” Ester is a writer: serious about her work and her choices, dedicated with earnest clarity to the life of the mind. Everything goes to hell when she agrees to deliver a lecture on an artist named Hugo Rask, and subsequently falls in love with him. Even Ester’s vegetarianism crumbles in the course of their abortive courtship.
“Willful Disregard,” published in Sarah Death’s 2015 English translation, follows Ester in her desperate attempts to comprehend what is going on between her and the artist who is failing to love her back. If, in “I Love Dick,” romantic abjection yields confrontational art, in “Willful Disregard” it yields awkward texts. This outcome is no less harrowing for being more familiar, and, in Andersson’s cool, observant prose, it’s possible to examine the mental gymnastics of thwarted desire with a rigor seldom available to those in Ester’s condition (or to their confidantes, who are given voice in the book as Ester’s “girlfriend chorus”). The results are ruthlessly lucid and funny.
“She had made up her mind not to ring him,” Andersson writes, after Ester and Hugo spend a night together. “Admittedly she thought it was strange that one would not want perpetual contact with the person with whom one had just embarked on a loving relationship, but she had to be flexible.” She calls, of course. He doesn’t answer. “There are natural explanations for everything,” she thinks. For example: “He felt secure with her and did not need to keep telling her what he was doing, or making contact, because they were in continuous spiritual contact anyway.” — Molly Fischer
“ Red Comet ,” by Heather Clark
I bought Heather Clark’s “Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath” last winter, by which point it had appeared on year-end lists and was a Pulitzer finalist. I’ve wanted to dive in ever since but just couldn’t find the right moment to leap headlong into its eleven hundred and fifty-two pages. Then summer rolled around, and I found myself craving a smart book I could live in for months—the literary equivalent of a bottomless Negroni. A Big Biography, such as “Red Comet,” is a dense, self-contained world, one you can unpack your suitcase inside, and I knew that, once I did venture into it, it would totally consume me. This is more or less what has happened over the past few weeks. I am now so deep into “Red Comet” that it has become a little slice of my personality; I feel an urgent need to press it into other people’s hands so that we can discuss it.
“Red Comet” is not the first Plath biography I’ve read. My first was actually a 1994 meta-biography called “ The Silent Woman ,” by the late, great Janet Malcolm. Malcolm’s book, which grew out of an article she wrote for The New Yorker , is about the fact that nobody had ever written a truly great Plath study, as the task presents a thicket of competing interests, family resentments, and obstructionist estate intervention. After Plath’s suicide, in 1963, her husband, Ted Hughes, from whom she was separated at the time, and Hughes’s sister Olwyn managed her archive and her legacy, and as such any scholar wanting to write a Plath biography had to go through them in order to get permission to use the materials. This process skewed the works that emerged: those who coöperated wrote books that were highly favorable to Hughes’s side of the story, and those who didn’t wrote anemic volumes that lacked juicy insight. Malcolm’s brilliant book, which is not just about Plath’s many biographers but about how it is nearly impossible to write a truly phenomenal biography of anyone, is one of my favorites because it lays bare all the manipulations and compromises that go into any work of nonfiction. It also put me off Plath biographies (and there are always Plath biographies) for many years, because I was convinced that they were going to be either toothless duds or score-settling screeds. And then came “Red Comet,” with all its fanfare, which had taken Clark more than nine years to complete.
What Clark has accomplished is staggering: she manages to put Plath’s story back into the context of her life, rather than through her fights with Hughes or the tragic mythology swirling around her death. The book is urgent and alive and provocative and confident—which is exactly how Plath’s poetry feels. In the introduction, Clark writes, of Plath, “She was determined to live as fully as possible—to write, to travel, to cook, to draw, to love as much and as often as she could. She was, in the words of a close friend, ‘operatic’ in her desires, a ‘Renaissance woman’ molded as much by Romantic sublimity as New England stoicism.” The same could be said for Clark’s book—it is an opera, epic and sumptuous.
When I come to the end of “Red Comet,” it will feel like the end of a beautiful trip away, and I am not ready to go home yet. Fortunately, there are always Plath’s books to read—or to listen to. My other summer suggestion? Download Maggie Gyllenhaal reading “ The Bell Jar .” You won’t regret it. — Rachel Syme
“ The Fugitivities ,” by Jesse McCarthy
American literature is peopled with runaways—those brave, brazen, or simply compromised enough to abdicate their responsibilities and take to the road. Few contemporary writers have explored the impulse with more nuance and verve than the scholar Jesse McCarthy, whose début novel, “The Fugitivities,” follows a young Black teacher in the early two-thousands from disillusionment in Brooklyn to doubt and revelation abroad. Jonah, like his Biblical namesake, is a man who abandons his mission, so demoralized by teaching students condemned to poverty that he decides to quit classroom and country for Brazil. He squanders a small inheritance from a respectable uncle on his open-ended adventure—which, of course, only sharpens his alienation. Just before his departure, he crosses paths with a retired basketball star whose life took an opposite trajectory, away from his great love in Paris toward a responsible existence mentoring troubled youth in New York. In their parallel stories, the Black intellectual’s crisis of faith meets the guilty anomie of the American expatriate. McCarthy’s spiralling, exquisitely cadenced prose is a shot of adrenaline, enlivening an ambitious twenty-first-century sentimental education that recalls Ben Lerner, Ralph Ellison, and Roberto Bolaño. — Julian Lucas
“ Love’s Work ,” by Gillian Rose
I am teaching a class in the autumn called “Love and Other Useless Pursuits.” It will begin, dutifully, with Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, and then move swiftly through my favorite writers and thinkers on this thorny subject: d’Aragona, Cavendish, Stendhal, Goethe, Emerson, Proust, Woolf, Barnes, Baldwin, Beauvoir, Lacan, and Barthes. Deciding when and how to end it was the hardest part, and the handful of texts I considered selecting as the final book—Lauren Berlant’s “ Desire/Love ,” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “ A Dialogue on Love ,” Leo Bersani’s “ Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and of Art ”—are still spread forlornly around my writing table. Where I landed was Gillian Rose’s “Love’s Work,” written while Rose, a great and uncompromising social philosopher, was dying of ovarian cancer. I wish that I knew why I made the choice I did; I cannot account for it in full. Certainly, it has something to do with her voice, which I find magnetic—elegant, unflinching, irreverent, and ferociously principled in its discussion of desire and affliction. It has something, too, to do with the resolve with which Rose faces both her own death and the deaths of those she has loved, or could have imagined loving: friends who have died from AIDS , relatives killed in the camps. But, more than anything else, I think that I wanted to end the class on Rose’s idea that love’s work is coextensive with the work of thinking and the work of criticism. Despite what advice columns and self-help books might teach, love, like criticism, is a peculiarly autocratic pursuit. One authorizes one’s own judgments and must live with the consequences. Sometimes—most of the time, some would say—we get it wrong. We err on the side of indulgence or cruelty, blind to (blinded by?) our own power. Yet to fail is not to fall into despair. Failing in love, and in criticism, lets us gain a sense of ethical relations: we perceive the conditionality of our judgments, and embrace our capacity to forgive and to be forgiven. Rose puts this better than I can hope to, in lines I often repeat to friends: “There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy. To be at someone’s mercy is dialectical damage: they may be merciful and they may be merciless. Yet each party, woman, man, the child in each, and their child, is absolute power as well as absolute vulnerability. You may be less powerful than the whole world, but you are always more powerful than yourself.” — Merve Emre
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The Ultimate Summer 2022 Reading List
Math + books = .
It’s June. We’re barbecuing. We’re sweating on the subway. We’re building forts in the backyard, and we’re building them out of our massive summer TBR piles (use a tarp). Yep, it’s that time of year again —so let the list of lists commence.
If you’re new here, here’s how it works:
1. I read all of the Most Anticipated and Best Summer Reading lists that flood the internet this time of year (or at least as many as I can find). 2. I count how many times each book is included. 3. I collate them for you in this handy list.
This year, I read through 36 lists, which recommended a grand total of 514 books. As always, I avoided narrowly themed or genre-specific lists (like “thrillers” or “business books” or “Hallmark novels”), though I included those marked either fiction or nonfiction. (The full list of lists is at the end of this post.) I have included those books recommended at least three times below, in descending order of frequency. The recommendations this year are a little more diffuse than usual—I noticed more older books being thrown into the mix, and the top scoring book only got 13 nods (as opposed to 21 for last year’s top scorer). Like everything else, it’s probably because of the pandemic. Or inflation!
Still, if you want to Read the Book That Everyone is Reading (or at least recommending) this summer, or even if you’d just like to Judge Everyone For Their Taste in Books, Please, here’s where you should start:
Ottessa Moshfegh, Lapvona
Mohsin Hamid, The Last White Man Tom Perrotta, Tracy Flick Can’t Win
Sloane Crosley, Cult Classic Akwaeke Emezi, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty
Kirstin Chen, Counterfeit
Joseph Han, Nuclear Family Morgan Talty, Night of the Living Rez
Isaac Fitzgerald, Dirtbag, Massachusetts Abdulrazak Gurnah, Afterlives Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Latecomer Taylor Jenkins Reid, Carrie Soto Is Back
Bolu Babalola, Honey & Spice Marcy Dermansky, Hurricane Girl Hernan Diaz, Trust Werner Herzog, tr. Michael Hofmann, The Twilight World Elin Hilderbrand, The Hotel Nantucket Patrick Radden Keefe, Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks Nina LaCour, Yerba Buena Emma Straub, This Time Tomorrow Ed Yong, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us
Elif Batuman, Either/Or Geraldine Brooks, Horse Viola Davis, Finding Me Ada Calhoun, Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me Adrian McKinty, The Island J.M. Miro, Ordinary Monsters Rasheed Newson, My Government Means to Kill Me Jody Rosen, Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle David Sedaris, Happy-Go-Lucky Sarah Stodola, The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril at the Beach Kaitlyn Tiffany, Everything I Need I Get from You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It Jess Walter, The Angel of Rome and Other Stories Lidia Yuknavitch, Thrust
Imogen Binnie, Nevada Howard Byrant, Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original Elaine Castillo, How to Read Now Lydia Conklin, Rainbow Rainbow Ingrid Rojas Contreras, The Man Who Could Move Clouds Maya Deane, Wrath Goddess Sing Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Woman of Light Jenna Fischer & Angela Kinsey, The Office BFFs: Tales of the Office from Two Best Friends Who Were There Emily Henry, Book Lovers R.F. Kuang, Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau Chinelo Okparanta, Harry Sylvester Bird Nicole Pasulka, How You Get Famous Rebecca Rukeyser, The Seaplane on Final Approach Riley Sager, The House Across the Lake Erika L. Sanchez, Crying in the Bathroom Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility Toya Wolfe, Last Summer on State Street David Yoon, City of Orange Gabrielle Zevin, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
The list of lists:
The New York Times Book Review’s 88 Books to Bring Your Summer Alive • The New York Times’ What Should I Read This Summer? • The Washington Post’s 21 Books to Read This Summer • The Atlantic’s Summer Reading Guide • Publishers Weekly’s Summer Reads: Staff Picks ; Fiction ; Mystery/Thriller ; Romance ; SF/Fantasy/Horror ; Comics ; Nonfiction • Vulture’s 17 Books We Can’t Wait to Read This Summer • BuzzFeed’s 34 New Summer Books You Won’t Be Able To Put Down • Thrillist’s 27 Books We Can’t Wait to Read This Summer • People’s The 20 Best Books to Read This Summer • The Daily Beast’s Best Summer Beach Reads of 2022 • Vogue’s 7 of the Best New Beach Reads to Unwind With This Summer • TIME’s 27 New Books You Need to Read This Summer • The Chicago Tribune’s Books for Summer 2022 • EW’s 16 Novels We’re Excited For This Summer • Mother Jones’ Nine New Books That Will Make You Smarter This Summer • CBS News’ Best Summer Beach Reads for 2022 • Elle’s 21 Must-Read Books To Pick Up This Summer • The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s 45 New Books for Summer Reading in 2022 • Book Riot’s 40 of the Best Summer Reads for 2022 • The Wall Street Journal’s Guide to Summer Books • The Skimm’s 20 Buzzy Books to Read at the Beach (or On Your Couch) This Summer • Fortune’s 10 New Page-Turning Novels You Should Read This Summer • The New York Post’s 27 Novels You’ll Want to Pick Up This Summer • Esquire’s The 20 Best Books of Summer 2022 • Five Books’ Notable Novels of Summer 2022 • The Boston Globe’s Summer Reading 2022 • Town & Country’s 33 Must-Read Books of Summer 2022 • and of course, Literary Hub’s 35 Novels You Need to Read This Summer ; 29 Works of Nonfiction You Need to Read This Summer ; and 9 Short Story Collections You Need to Read This Summer
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Pulse-pounding summer thrillers.
If there were ever a time to distract yourself with escapist fiction, that time is now.
- THE LAST FLIGHT , by Julie Clark
- THIS IS HOW I LIED , by Heather Gudenkauf
- THE GUEST LIST , by Lucy Foley
- THE CHOICE , by Gillian McAllister
- THESE WOMEN , by Ivy Pochoda
- A GOOD MARRIAGE , by Kimberly McCreight
- CLEAN HANDS , by Patrick Hoffman
By Sarah Lyall
What if you could spend the next three months doing nothing but lying around reading escapist fiction, with a margarita or a bowl of cherries or a massive Toblerone bar — or all three — at your fingertips? If there were ever a time to distract yourself with the dismaying and often preposterous predicaments of characters unlucky enough to be the protagonists of thrillers, that time is now. The more outrageous, the better.
Switching identities with someone sounds so alluring, particularly now that we’re stuck at home with nothing but our own diminishing resources. Let’s get out of here! But of course all that means is trading one set of problems for another, as Julie Clark reminds us in THE LAST FLIGHT (Sourcebooks Landmark, 311 pp., $26.99).
At Kennedy Airport and on the run from her charismatic, abusive husband, Claire Cook impulsively accepts the offer of a woman named Eva to swap lives. In a variation on the classic “Freaky Friday” scenario, Claire flies in Eva’s place to Oakland; Eva takes Claire’s spot on a flight to Puerto Rico. But the Puerto Rico-bound plane crashes, spinning the novel in an intriguing new direction. (It also seems great for Claire, since she is now officially dead.)
The plot runs on two tracks. Going back in time, it fills in Eva’s past — her rough childhood, her triumphant acceptance to college, how it all went off the rails so spectacularly. (As is so often the case, a bad man had something to do with it.) And in the present, it takes us along with Claire to Berkeley, where she is confronted by the complications in Eva’s life. A further twist: It seems that Eva might not have boarded the doomed plane after all, and Claire’s vindictive husband suspects that his wife is still alive. Trying to figure it out for herself, Claire Googles “Can you scan onto a flight and not get on it?,” as we all would.
It’s hard to become engrossed in a book just now, with so much noise crackling inside and outside of our heads, but “The Last Flight” is thoroughly absorbing — not only because of its tantalizing plot and deft pacing, but also because of its unexpected poignancy and its satisfying, if bittersweet, resolution. The characters get under your skin.
If you’re sick of who you are, you might be equally sick of where you’ve been living for the past few months. But be glad you’re not holed up in sleepy Grotto, Iowa, which embodies the three rules of small-town thriller life: 1. Placid communities are actually claustrophobic hotbeds of murderous intrigue. 2. Your neighbors are creepy sex pests. 3. All the law-enforcement officials are totally compromised by conflicts of interest.
Heather Gudenkauf’s THIS IS HOW I LIED (Park Row, 336 pp., $28.99) visits the unsolved murder of 15-year-old Eve Knox, whose body — beaten, asphyxiated — was found in a grotto in Grotto back during Bill Clinton’s first term. Twenty-five years later, the victim’s long-lost bloody shoe turns up, and the past rushes into the present to wreak havoc on Eve’s friends and enemies, none of whom seem to have managed to leave town in the ensuing quarter-century.
As with actors forced to double up on roles in a regional theater company, each character plays multiple parts in the ensuing drama. Maggie, Eve’s best friend, who discovered her body, is now the detective assigned to the reopened case, which was originally investigated by her father, then the police chief and now increasingly senile. Nick, Eve’s violent boyfriend, peaked in high school and now runs the town’s gift shop.
There are enough red herrings to form their own little school in the corner of the pond. As the complicated web of relationships and pathologies is revealed — wait until you hear about Nola, Eve’s sister, and her highly unpleasant hobby — the story shifts into high gear. Throughout it all you feel terribly sorry for Eve, whose unhappy last day on earth is revealed in flashbacks interspersed with the present-day narrative. She is the nicest person in the book, but an awful lot of people had motives to kill her.
Evoking the great Agatha Christie classics “And Then There Were None” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” Lucy Foley’s clever, taut new novel, THE GUEST LIST (Morrow/HarperCollins, 305 pp., $27.99), takes us to a creepy island off the coast of Ireland, where a young couple are about to get married.
They seem so glossy and perfect. Jules is the beautiful, scarily competent editor of an online fashion magazine, and Will is the hot, charming Bear Grylls-ish host of a popular reality TV show called “Survive the Night,” which involves him being left alone in various dangerous situations after dark, and having to use his cunning and survival skills to return to safety. He and Jules look so good together. They barely know each other. What a great start to a marriage.
Foley builds her suspense slowly and creepily, deploying an array of narrators bristling with personal secrets: Jules, the bride; Olivia, her fragile sister; Johnno, the troubled best man; Hannah, whose husband is an old and suspiciously close friend of Jules; and quiet Aoife, the suspiciously judgmental and tightly wound wedding planner.
What sadistic acts did Will and his bro-y groomsmen regularly commit at their horrible boys’ boarding school — and why is Will’s father, the headmaster of that school, so cold toward his son at the wedding? Why do people keep bringing up “Lord of the Flies”? Is it really a good idea to have a wedding on a possibly haunted island full of ancient bodies buried in the peat, especially with a major storm brewing?
We know from the flash-forwards dotted throughout that someone will be murdered during the wedding reception. Pay close attention to seemingly throwaway details about the characters’ pasts. They are all clues. When the murder finally happens — when the identity of the victim is revealed — it makes total sense. The only question is why no one did it sooner.
THE CHOICE (Putnam, 366 pp., paper, $16), Gillian McAllister’s almost unbearably tense novel, divides its narrative into alternative stories, “Sliding Doors”-style, playing out two possible futures in one person’s life. It’s such a fascinating thought, how a moment can change everything. Both scenarios begin when Joanna Oliva, a young woman walking home from a bar at night, pushes a threatening man who seems to be following her down a set of stairs in London.
In the first scenario, Joanna resuscitates him and seeks help — concealing vital details about what happened but still facing the possibility of life in prison. In the other, she leaves the man to die, and is driven to virtual madness by the weight of her conscience and the burden of concealment.
“The Choice” is less a conventional thriller than a morality tale, a granular exploration of secrecy and guilt — how they corrode, how they poison a psyche — in the manner of “Crime and Punishment” or “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Following Joanna as she grapples with her conscience, it’s hard not to have every shameful secret from your own past come flooding back. It’s times like this that I wish I were Catholic and could go to confession for quick absolution. (The thought passes quickly.)
A lot of the tension reverberating through “The Choice” has to do with the psychic interplay between Joanna and her rigidly moralistic husband, Reuben. What will she tell Reuben, and when? How will she handle his response? Is she really right to think of him as some sort of moral arbiter of behavior?
As the book turns the screws, it becomes almost physically difficult to read. I was so grateful to McAllister for providing some degree of relief, some redemption for Joanna — and for us.
Women are dying at an alarming rate on the streets of Los Angeles in Ivy Pochoda’s THESE WOMEN (Ecco/HarperCollins, 352 pp., $27.99), but nobody is paying much attention: They are sex workers, street people, marginal citizens of color. But if women are the victims in this intricate, deeply felt, beautifully written novel, they are also its heroes.
The story unfolds through the perspectives of five characters, all women, with overlapping and interweaving histories. Their voices sizzle and sparkle; each of them helps advance the plot, and each brings to it her own particular pain and her own particular tragedy. All are haunted by birth and circumstance.
Dorian, who owns a fried-fish shack in South Central and is especially kind to “women on the stroll,” as she thinks of them, wants more than anything else to keep everyone safe. She is broken, ruined by the murder of Lecia, her beloved daughter, after an evening of babysitting some years earlier.
Julianna, the child Lecia was babysitting that night, has grown up to become Jujubee, a dancer at a sketchy nightclub who is built for “a world of jiggling and taunting, of sauntering and displaying” but who has the eye of an artist and a hunger to escape to something better. She also has a phone full of searing, beautifully composed photographs that she longs to show the world.
Then there’s Marella, Julianna’s neighbor, whose puritanical views about morality and sexuality and women have (among other things) instilled in her an uncontrollable rage that erupts from time to time. The story of her mother, Anneke, who has been keeping her own dark secrets for decades, follows along after Marella’s.
But the best character, the character who stays with you long after you have read the last word of this provocative book, is a diminutive, damaged, brilliant police detective named Essie. Tormented by guilt after a terrible tragedy in her past, she has been overlooked for promotion, passed over in the department, scoffed at by her male colleagues who refuse to listen when she says a serial killer is at work. She knows that someone has the blood of 17 women on his hands.
Kimberly McCreight’s latest book is called A GOOD MARRIAGE (HarperCollins, 390 pp., $27.99), but every marriage in the story, set among the snobs, poseurs and wannabes in tony Park Slope, Brooklyn, is dreadful. The characters look as if their lives are perfect, but their greatest skill is their ability to conceal the adultery, substance abuse and financial ruin percolating underneath. (“That’s the hardest part about marriage,” one character observes. “Somebody else’s problems become your own.”)
Let’s start with Zach Grayson, a superrich businessman, and his gorgeous, much younger wife, Amanda, whom we meet early in the book lying in a deceased heap at the bottom of the stairs in her elegant brownstone, covered in blood. (We will soon hear, in intermittent chapters, how she spent her last week or so on earth.)
Amanda is lovely and anxious; Zach, squirrelly and conniving. When we first meet him, he is in jail and calling Lizzie Kitsakis, an old law school classmate who also lives in Park Slope, begging for her help in defending him on his incipient murder charge. Unfortunately, because it is about to get really complicated, she ends up taking the case.
Lizzie’s marriage is nothing to post about on Facebook, either. Her husband is smart and loving, but he is also a falling-down drunk with a propensity for unemployment and a habit of forgetting where he’s been during his benders. Meanwhile, Zach and Amanda’s friends among the fellow parents at Brooklyn Country Day are wrestling with their own demons, some of which will emerge at Maude Lagueux’s notorious Sleepaway Soiree. It’s the sex party of the year, full of sanctioned adulterous fun.
Secrets pile up like cars on the freeway, some of them exiting onto service roads that lead nowhere. Who is stalking Amanda? What is the story with Amanda’s shadowy friend Carolyn? Who is behind the malicious hacks into the computers of the parents at the kids’ school? What is the mystery Lizzie is so anxious to conceal? And why is Zach such a tool?
McCreight is particularly deft at parsing the small but telling details of life among Park Slope’s elite, as when Amanda fails to understand that the ladies of Park Slope prefer “calculated indifference” in matters of dress, a contrast to the glossy perfectionism of their Manhattan counterparts.
“Park Slope moms were beautiful and fashionable and fit, but they were above caring too much about silly things like fashion,” McCreight writes. “Amanda needed to master the application of the exact right amount of concealer and precise coating of mascara to appear flawlessly barefaced.”
It’s not a reason to kill anyone, but Amanda just never fit in.
Meanwhile, be glad you are not Chris Cowley, a hapless young associate at a fancy corporate law firm in New York. At the beginning of Patrick Hoffman’s CLEAN HANDS (Atlantic Monthly Press, 288 pp., $25.99), Chris gets drunk and then, still apparently hung over, has his cellphone stolen in Grand Central Terminal as he goes to work the next day.
No bonus for him! (Especially after an investigator examines a video of the incident and sees what looks like a suspicious split-second interaction between Chris and the pickpocket.) Not only is the cellphone unlocked and not password-protected, if such a thing is even possible, it also contains a trove of highly confidential and compromising documents related to a sensitive case the law firm is working on.
Topics covered include a failed merger, a shell corporation in Oman, collusion and bond-price manipulation. (Handily for the thieves, the documents are not hard to find on the phone, being as how they are labeled “hot docs.”)
The stolen phone passes through various layers of New York City criminality until it reaches Avi Lessing, one in a series of middlemen of varying intelligence, who decides to copy the compromising files onto his own hard drive. What a great idea! “He would come to regret that decision more than anything he’d ever done in his life,” Hoffman notes.
Valencia Walker, the no-messing-about former C.I.A. operative hired by the firm, brings an elaborate arsenal of threats, promises, violence, subterfuge and charm to bear as she plays the various factions against one another. It becomes increasingly clear that the whole thing is far more complicated, with much higher stakes, than most of the pawns in this grand chess game understand.
The fun is in the details. A lot of characters find themselves in places they would rather not be, feeling paranoid, anxious and compromised by things they wish they had not done. Chris, the associate who started the whole thing, has perhaps the hardest time coming to grips with what a sorry turn his life has taken. “One day you’re home doing a little work, the next you’re involved in a criminal conspiracy,” he muses.
At one point, a shadowy figure on the subway warns him to appear less depressed so as not to bring suspicion upon himself, an encounter that inevitably brings him to a new low of despair.
“He used to go out to clubs and hook up with random dudes, make out with them,” Hoffman writes. “He used to send text messages to his friends and go out for brunch. He used to listen to podcasts and watch movies and cook food and go out to dinner. What happened to all that? What happened to exercising, yoga classes, bicycle riding, farmers’ markets? Was that life completely over?”
Sarah Lyall is a writer at large for The Times, working for a variety of desks including sports, culture, media and international. Previously she was a correspondent in the London bureau, and a reporter for the culture and metro desks.
Need a Distraction? These Thrillers Will Have You on the Edge of Your Seat
Cunning, Damaged and Deranged: The Latest Thrillers by Women
By Ivy Pochoda
The Summer Heats Up With Some True Crime
Explore stories, from a mysterious death at a Los Angeles hotel to Depression-era kidnappings, that are scarier because they really happened.
- GONE AT MIDNIGHT , by Jake Anderson
- MURDER IN THE GARMENT DISTRICT , by David Witwer and Catherine Rios
- THE KIDNAP YEARS , by David Stout
- THE WOMAN ON THE WINDOWSILL , by Sylvia Sellers-Garcia
- MURDER, WITCHCRAFT AND THE KILLING OF WILDLIFE , by Stephen R. Matthews
By Marilyn Stasio
The first thing you want to know when you begin reading a true-crime story is why the author chose to write about that particular crime. Did he or she play a direct role in the crime or its investigation? Were they somehow intimately involved? Or was it for the same reason that we’re reading — the story was just irresistibly interesting?
Me, I’m a sucker for cursed settings (like the Cecil Hotel), appalling crimes (like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping) and really stupid fails (like the kidnappers who forgot to ask for ransom money). All of these are represented in the crimes I’ve lined up for you, along with some others almost too outlandish to describe.
The Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles is a palpable presence in GONE AT MIDNIGHT: The Mysterious Death of Elisa Lam (Citadel/Kensington, 352 pp., $26), by Jake Anderson. Familiarly known as “the Suicide Hotel,” the Cecil had a morbid history as a sanctuary for sex offenders and other unsavory characters, as well as for being the site of numerous “murders, suicides, serial killers” and “reports of creepy paranormal stuff.” Perhaps its most infamous residents were Richard Ramirez, the notorious “Night Stalker,” and Jack Unterweger, aptly known as “the Austrian Ghoul.” But the hotel’s reputation took another major hit in 2013, when a 21-year-old Chinese-Canadian student named Elisa Lam died a most mysterious death.
At first, Lam’s disappearance from her hotel room was only marginally alarming, given the Cecil’s shady reputation. But after the front desk fielded several complaints about the foul-tasting water coming out of the taps, it was only a matter of time before Lam’s body was found submerged in one of the four 1,000-gallon water cisterns on the roof. Tenants recoiled in horror, we’re told, to learn that “for nearly two weeks they had drunk, brushed their teeth with, and bathed in corpse water.”
Although the circumstances strongly suggested either suicide or some bizarre accident, the “websleuths” on the internet who watched surveillance footage of Lam repeatedly getting on and off the elevator going to the roof insisted that foul play was involved. “The case became a kind of Rorschach test; everyone who looked at it saw something different, something uniquely meaningful and uniquely petrifying.” In other words: murder. Or something. While allowing for other possible interpretations (and minimizing the daunting logistics), Anderson believes that Lam was murdered, the victim of a “traumatic sexual attack” by one or more assailants. Or something. Given the checkered history of the Cecil Hotel (which was recently named to the Los Angeles registry of historic landmarks), I wouldn’t rule out Jack the Ripper.
Murder gets political in MURDER IN THE GARMENT DISTRICT: The Grip of Organized Crime and the Decline of Labor in the United States (New Press, 292 pp., $26.99), a muckraking study by David Witwer and Catherine Rios that opens with a shocking killing of a labor organizer. In the spring of 1949, William Lurye was stabbed to death in a telephone booth as he was making a phone call to his union. In the authors’ lurid telling, two attackers repeatedly hacked at his jugular and slashed at his chest, gashing him so deeply that, “as the crimson fluid filled his chest, Lurye was effectively drowning in his own blood.”
At the time, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ burgeoning union was on a crusade to organize sweatshop workers. And owners, in their determination to keep the unions locked out of their shops, often resorted to violence. (Today, the authors claim, corporations “simply starve workers into submission.”) Responding to the murder of Lurye, some 20,000 union members, joined by 65,000 dressmakers, staged a march at the funeral and as many as 80,000 other workers put down their tools and turned out to watch. Despite the size of the work force, the labor movement got no protection from the police or the federal government. In their frustration, labor leaders turned to organized crime leaders for muscle — and therein lies the tale.
The authors make no pretense of offering a “fair and balanced” treatment of organized labor and its tactics. In fact, they approvingly describe the unionizers’ “fight for justice” on behalf of underpaid and exploited sweatshop workers, most of them women and immigrants, as being conducted with “rage and dignity.” But despite allowing for the corruption that tarnished the movement in later years, Witwer and Rios mourn the political attacks (including the highly publicized witch hunt conducted by Robert F. Kennedy) that soured public perception and “left the labor movement intact but permanently scarred, with a reputation for corruption that endures to this day.”
But enough about those rabble-rousers. Let’s talk about you. Finding times tough? Having trouble making ends meet? Hey, why not take a page from the era of the Great Depression and go out and kidnap somebody for a big fat ransom?
“There were so many kidnappings in Depression-era America that newspapers listed the less sensational cases in small type,” David Stout tells us in his gripping page-turner, THE KIDNAP YEARS: The Astonishing True History of the Forgotten Kidnapping Epidemic That Shook Depression-Era America (Sourcebooks, 430 pp., $26.99). Besides being the most conspicuously well-written book on the shelf, this study views the subject of kidnapping from the perspective of a nation that had fallen on truly hard times. Neither an antisocial lark nor a professional criminal enterprise, snatching a human being for cold cash was often an act of pure desperation.
Using the word “kidnapping” within the context of the Great Depression invariably calls to mind the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932, which captured the attention of the entire nation. But although it was the most dramatic crime of the decade — and all the more horrific because it ended in the death of an infant — the Lindbergh kidnapping was far from the only case of its kind. In fact, as Stout informs us, kidnapping was something of a cottage industry in that despairing era.
Kidnappings defined the times “as much as bank robberies and speakeasies and panhandling,” Stout says. In the year before the Lindbergh baby-napping, some 279 people of all ages — brewers, bankers, builders and well-to-do merchants among them — had been abducted and redeemed (or not) for money. In fact, before public outrage precipitated the enactment of the so-called Lindbergh Law against human abductions, kidnapping was quite common during the Great Depression. And while much of it was the work of professional criminals moonlighting from their day jobs as gamblers and bootleggers, some of this body-snatching was the work of amateurs whom Stout describes as “driven to desperation because they had no jobs and no prospects.”
Lest you get the wrong idea, let it be noted that the author does not fail to mention the stone-hearted cruelty of a certain breed of kidnapper. A wealthy Ohio contractor named James DeJute got the message when the men who kidnapped his 11-year-old son sent him a ransom note demanding $10,000, to be paid in one lump sum, rather than piecemeal, unless he also wanted to have his boy returned to him “in installments.” In another ugly case, this one in Los Angeles, 12-year-old Marion Parker fell into the hands of a psychotic kidnapper, William Edward Hickman. Even after her father paid the $1,500 ransom demand, she suffered a terrible fate. When Hickman realized that the police were on the case, he returned Marion in six separate bundles, each carefully wrapped and deposited all over the city. “Hardened detectives wept at the scene,” Stout tells us.
Sad to say, children were game sport for kidnappers during the Depression. They may not have had money for their own ransoms, but their rich parents were believed to be rolling in it. So lucrative was the new criminal enterprise assumed to be that even otherwise successful entrepreneurs like the sons of Ma Barker, the ruthless Barker Boys, took up the trade, as did famous bank robbers like Pretty Boy Floyd, a native son of Oklahoma who spoke fondly of his own 11-year-old son, Jack Dempsey Floyd, while planning his next heist.
Although Stout fully acknowledges the violent methods of such professional criminals, he makes a fine distinction between the practiced undertakings of these hardened pros and the efforts of their amateurish imitators. “Few people in our time can appreciate the crushing poverty and everyday hardships” endured by Americans of that time, he writes, reminding us of the economic origins of these Depression-era crime waves.
That said, the trouble with historical crimes is that the ingenuity of the perpetrators can overshadow the humanity of their victims. In that context, THE WOMAN ON THE WINDOWSILL: A Tale of Mystery in Several Parts (Yale University, 281 pp., $32.50), by Sylvia Sellers-Garcia, serves as a grim but effective corrective. Set in Guatemala City, the story begins in the summer of 1800 when a surveyor and mapmaker named Don Cayetano Diaz opens the shutters of his workshop window to make a dreadful discovery. There, on the stone windowsill, he finds a pair of severed women’s breasts placed upon a lily pad, “as if served on a plate.”
OK, let’s back up a minute here. This is 19th-century Guatemala, remember, and violence against women was not exactly a hanging offense; if, indeed, it even registered as an offense. “Rape against grown women left court officials unmoved” and went largely unpunished, the author reminds us, while savage domestic assaults, even homicides, rarely advanced past the initial complaint phase. But two mutilated breasts, served up as if some macabre “amuse bouche,” was a bit much. Not only did this outrageous crime violate the public peace, “it was a clear rebuff of that carefully orchestrated social control with which Bourbon reformers planned to make people orderly, obedient and useful.”
When viewed in this political context, as the author does here, crimes against women threatened the very order of a paternalistic society. Fathers and husbands had complete control over their daughters and wives, and all men were within their legal rights to “punish” (that is, beat the living daylights out of) the women of their households. And if ever a woman should complain in a court of law, it was up to her to prove her claim. (“Were the injuries visible? Did the victim scream? Were her screams heard by others?”)
But let it not be said the law was completely heartless. Cases involving children, Sellers-Garcia reassures us, were treated as crimes. Other than that, “Escandalo” — scandal — was the real crime. “In a very real way, scandal was worse than violence,” she writes. “A violent act threatened the body. A scandalous act threatened moral and spiritual health.”
In the end, “The Woman on the Windowsill” isn’t really about a woman or her breasts; it’s about how that particularly grotesque public exhibition of violence against women led to significant changes in the body politic. More vigorous policing, tougher laws and increased public awareness followed fast, ushering in modern attitudes about violence toward women that were ultimately reflected in advanced criminal procedures within Guatemala and throughout Latin America.
Each in its own way, these books track important changes in the legal systems that deal with heinous crimes against men, women and children. So, what’s left — animals? Well, yes. Stephen R. Matthews covers that ground in MURDER, WITCHCRAFT AND THE KILLING OF WILDLIFE: Police Investigations at the Heart of Africa (Pen & Sword, 231 pp., $34.95). It’s tough to compete with witch doctors, gun runners, government assassins, mercenaries and assorted other strong personalities of that ilk, but the author’s magnificent Doberman, modestly named Alex, comes off best in this rattling good memoir by a former British police officer writing of his colorful career while on assignment in Congo. As a visitor to the police station patiently explains his complaint to the desk sergeant: “You know, this is all about witchcraft and of course, the Bwana’s big brown dog Alex knows who did it.” I mean, what’s not to love about a story featuring a canine revered for his courage, sagacity and insight into human malfeasance?
In between solving murders and settling village grievances, Matthews is frequently called upon to deal with a variety of local scams, like the self-serving hustle of a mortician who has convinced a woman that her dear departed husband would be restored to life if she would have sex with him — the mortician, not the dead husband. But the soul of the book resides in the author’s efforts to stem the evil practices of slaughtering endangered wildlife and dealing with foreign agents in the dirty business of smuggling animal parts.
Despite his best attempts, Matthews could never shake off the way the locals saw him, as a white witch doctor with the ability to speak with the spirits of the dead and place spells against the living. There’s a story — several, in fact — about what led to this perception, which proves that, at the very least, the author learned a thing or two about telling a tale.
Marilyn Stasio writes the Crime column for the Book Review.
50 States of True Crime
By Tina Jordan and Ross MacDonald
Decades After Two Murders, an Appalachian Town Grapples With the Crimes
By Melissa Del Bosque
Eager to Visit a Different Time? These Novels Will Transport You
We can’t promise your destination will be an easier time than the one we’re in. But the journey will provide distraction and entertainment.
- THE EVERLASTING , by Katy Simpson Smith
- CONJURE WOMEN , by Afia Atakora
- AN ELEGANT WOMAN , by Martha McPhee
- THE VANISHING SKY , by L. Annette Binder
- THE PELTON PAPERS , by Mari Coates
- MORE MIRACLE THAN BIRD , by Alice Miller
- MISS AUSTEN , by Gill Hornby
- THE OTHER BENNET SISTER , by Janice Hadlow
By Alida Becker
History, it’s said, is written by the winners — and that usually means men. But in the realm of historical fiction, women have plenty of opportunity to take their revenge, and right now Hilary Mantel isn’t the only one doing it. In fact, there’s a small army of women offering their own slant on what life was like for our ancestors, near or far, famous or obscure. Here are some of them — and they’re all winners.
Katy Simpson Smith’s THE EVERLASTING ( Harper /HarperCollins , 352 pp., $27.99) could only have been set in Rome, where history’s layers are visible every day and, as one of her characters remarks, “You cannot move forward … only up or down.” Each of the four central figures in her storytelling — divided by centuries but not by their emotional quandaries — experiences the city in a different way.
Tom, an American biologist on a research grant in 2015, studies the microscopic action of Rome’s rivers while embarking on an illicit relationship that threatens to upend his family. Is the fishhook he finds merely a piece of junk or is it the holy relic given, in the novel’s next section, to Giulia de Medici as she grapples with an unwanted pregnancy in Renaissance Rome? Could it be the same relic that’s bought for six shillings in a grubby ninth-century market by 60-year-old Brother Felix, pining for a friend from his youth while he cares for the corpses of fellow monks in the putridarium of Santa Prisca? Can it have belonged to the second-century Roman girl, defying her parents with dangerous consequences, whose name happens to be Prisca?
For Smith, this is a literary hook, a means of exploring large moral questions: How much do we owe to those we love? To ourselves? What does it mean to lead a good life? Can you do that without being religious? Her eloquent storytelling shows us glimpses of certain answers, sometimes serious but just as often comic. It’s fitting that the latter tend to be provided by a fifth major character who interjects barbed commentary throughout: the Devil.
Satanic superstitions are just a few of the dangers confronting Rue, the heroine of Afia Atakora’s satisfyingly spooky first novel, CONJURE WOMEN (Random House, 416 pp., $27). Thanks to the lore passed on by her mother, Rue is expert in midwifery and the healing arts — and also hoodoo, which in the antebellum South is “black folks’ currency.” Yet even after the fall of the Confederacy, Rue’s position is precarious. When local children fall sick and begin dying, the rumors also begin: Rue’s dead mother has cursed this isolated community, clinging to the ruins of a burned-out plantation, and Rue herself is said to have cast spells to save a suspiciously pale child while leaving others to die. Those foxes in the woods? They’re the souls of the recently departed. Those men in white hoods? The all-too-real ghosts of the defeated rebels.
Cleverly ricocheting her chapters between the 1850s and the 1860s, Atakora shows how the legacy of bondage is played out in the aftermath of war. Scenes in “slaverytime” gradually reveal the reasons for certain actions in “freedomtime.” Of course, the people in the Big House and the people in the cabins are linked by violence, but they’re also enmeshed in the complexities of kinship, both forced and chosen. Although Marse Charles, the father of Rue’s childhood playmate, Miss Varina, will not survive the war, some of his family’s secrets will live on in Rue’s care. And a few of them are of her own making.
Martha McPhee is less interested in revealing family secrets than in probing the way insistently told lies can become a kind of truth. Partly inspired by McPhee’s grandmother’s own stories, AN ELEGANT WOMAN ( Scribner, 416 pp., $27) charts the course of a hardscrabble youth in the raw American West that’s deftly camouflaged by a prosperous, sophisticated Eastern adulthood. Isadora, McPhee’s novelist narrator, takes us back to the Montana of more than a century ago, where her grandmother, Tommy, and her little sister, Katherine, are left mostly to fend for themselves while their steely-eyed mother, Glenna, in flight from a bad marriage and in pursuit of independence, bounces from one teaching post to another, campaigning in her off hours for a woman’s right to vote.
Glenna is an artful liar and her message to her girls is simple: You can be what you pretend to be, especially if you take care to look the part. So they, like her, are impeccably dressed as they migrate from dirt-poor farms to rough mining towns to desperately poor Indian reservations, even though they can fit everything they own into a single battered trunk. But when the girls are grown and Glenna abandons them for good, tomboy Tommy must stop pretending that she’s pretty Katherine’s foster mother, especially since Katherine’s dreams of Hollywood don’t include her.
What’s the harm in risking one more lie, even if it’s a big one? Over the years, the sisters’ lives will diverge, one unable to keep up her charade, the other suffering privately in order to maintain hers. As McPhee brings the novel forward, into Isadora’s mother’s more freewheeling generation, what once looked heroic is in danger of being dismissed as a “collage of pretensions.” Isadora, the self-appointed curator of her family lore, is left to wonder how much of it will survive in the era of Snapchat’s My Story, where everything vanishes in 24 hours. “Distilled to its essence,” she asks, “who then takes it and transforms it to legend?”
L. Annette Binder must have asked a similar question when she tried to imagine her father’s childhood in World War II Germany. He died when she was 16 and they never spoke of it; all she knew was that he had spent time in the Hitler Youth. In THE VANISHING SKY ( Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $27), she uses Etta Huber, a hausfrau in a rural village, as a means of feeling her way back into the past, channeling the anguish and uncertainty of the final months of the fighting.
Etta is the wife of a retired schoolteacher and the mother of two sons. The elder, Max, returns from the Eastern Front early in the novel, haunted by what he has endured. When not rigid in his bed, he’s drawn to the local cemetery. “All their clocks have stopped,” he tells his mother. “Mine should have stopped too. I don’t know why it keeps on going.” Etta struggles to hide the severity of his condition lest the authorities confine Max to a mental hospital — or, worse still, deem him physically able and enlist him in a defense force now made up of grandfathers and boys.
That’s what has happened to Georg, Etta’s younger son, a pudgy bookworm with a fondness for magic tricks. At 15, he’s almost old enough to be a soldier. In the meantime, he’s off at a camp run by the Hitler Youth, digging trenches as the Allied armies come closer and closer. Georg’s adventures, at first full of adolescent pranks and braggadocio, quickly turn dark and desperate. As Germany collapses, all he wants is to get home. But how to do that when even nature seems to be conspiring against him? “They could hear the first shells already, and the sky shone red some nights as if the world had reversed itself and the sun were rising from the west.”
At many times in her career, the American artist Agnes Pelton felt the need to flee, but her enemy was self-doubt and nature was her solace. From her deathbed in a small 1960s town in the Sonoran Desert, she narrates Mari Coates’s quietly moving first novel, THE PELTON PAPERS ( She Writes Press, paper, 328 pp., $16.95), tracing her journey from the modest Brooklyn home she shared with her mother and grandmother to the places where she sought inspiration: Italy, Maine, the East End of Long Island, Hawaii, Southern California and, finally, an enclave of artists near Palm Springs.
The settings may sound glamorous (a Florentine villa, New York’s momentous 1913 Armory Show) and the walk-on parts name-worthy (Mabel Dodge Luhan, Djuna Barnes), but Pelton’s life was led on humble terms, dogged by worries about money and uncertainties about the strength of her talent. Coates sees her as a gentle but tormented soul: attracted to other women but wondering if she’s “unnatural”; relishing solitude but longing to be comfortable in a wider social circle; dutifully painting portraits to make money even as the abstract work she cherishes fails to sell.
As a student at Pratt Institute in the 1890s, Pelton is captivated by the Japanese concept of Notan beauty, “the harmony that is achieved by correctly arranging light and dark spaces.” In Coates’s narrative, much of Pelton’s darkness emanates from the lingering effects of a great scandal: her grandmother’s affair with the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher, which, when made public, destroyed her marriage and warped the life of her only daughter — and of her only grandchild. But in the end, the light Pelton finds in her artistic vocation wins out. When her work is going well, it creates its own kind of poetry: “Time ceased to march. Instead it flowed and became almost tidal, in and out, high and low, establishing a sense of the eternal present.”
Pelton was drawn to theosophy. Georgie Hyde-Lees, the heroine of Alice Miller’s MORE MIRACLE THAN BIRD ( Tin House, 368 pp., $25.95) , is a rising member of an occult London society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. By day, she tends soldiers wounded on the battlefields of World War I; by night she attends mystic ceremonies in a crowd of worshipers wearing hooded robes, one of whom is the renowned poet W. B. Yeats. He’s a ladies’ man, old enough to be her father, part of her mother’s social set. And Georgie isn’t a conventional heartthrob: “stubborn, with dark hair and a severe, slightly chubby face. She wasn’t really swanlike, or pretty, or especially feminine.” So how does she wind up as Mrs. Yeats?
The answer, at least in Miller’s telling, has a great deal to do with one of Georgie’s patients, Second Lt. Thomas Pike, who takes an unlikely interest in her, despite her infatuation with the charismatic Irishman. The narrative moves back and forth between Georgie and Pike, sketching out Georgie’s stumbling attempts to stay close to her idol and Pike’s almost as ungainly efforts to present himself as a suitor. Yeats, sublimely unaware that he has a rival for Georgie’s affections, is still obsessed with the actress Maud Gonne, and then with Maud’s daughter, Iseult.
Georgie, however, is clever enough to know that a person with her efficiency and scholarly talents (she reads in Italian, French, German and Latin and is teaching herself Sanskrit) will always be useful to a person as disorganized and emotionally skittish as Yeats. Warned that if she marries him she’ll become “a glorified secretary,” she deploys a more inventive talent, not just snaring and holding him but allowing her to become the steward of his genius, rivaling Maud Gonne as his muse.
Cassandra Austen oversaw the legacy of another of English literature’s greats, and generations of readers have wondered what was in the letters she destroyed after the death of her sister, Jane. In MISS AUSTEN ( Flatiron, 288 pp., $26.99), Gill Hornby presents a persuasive portrait of that bane of scholars and biographers, introducing an elderly Cassandra hurriedly inviting herself to the vicarage where an intimate friend of the Austen family once lived. Jane’s confidante, the mother of Cassandra’s onetime fiancé, is long dead and now her husband is also gone; with a new vicar about to arrive, it’s crucial that any remaining trace of Jane’s correspondence be kept from prying eyes.
There are others in the village who might also profit from this kind of trove, and as Cassandra acts as a genteel snoop she must also contrive to discourage their efforts. Why such desperate conniving? Every now and then, Hornby sends us back to the past, starting in the 1790s, when the Austen girls had yet to become confirmed spinsters. As time goes on and their situation seems ever more precarious, the reasons for Cassandra’s fierce protectiveness emerge. “There was but one fact that was allowed to walk with the novels into posterity: that Jane had lived her short life as a stranger to drama; that few changes, no events, no crises broke the smooth current of its course.” Cassandra, of course, knows otherwise.
In the background of Cassandra’s search, Hornby depicts a romance that could have emerged from an Austen novel and a number of real-life characters whose traits Austen may have borrowed for her fiction. It’s unlikely, though, that she would have distilled them into quite such a sympathetic heroine as Janice Hadlow does in THE OTHER BENNET SISTER (Holt, 480 pp., $27.99 ). Her Mary Bennet is indeed the plain and awkward sibling of “Pride and Prejudice,” whose action is reprised in the early chapters of Hadlow’s novel, this time from Mary’s lonely, yearning, deeply insecure point of view.
“Your sisters get in the way,” Mrs. Hill, the kindly housekeeper, informs her. “A daffodil seems quite ordinary when planted between lilies. But looked at without them, it has its own kind of beauty.” In the aftermath of her father’s death, Mary’s hesitant efforts to find a place in life are threatened by a familiar enemy, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and encouraged by a surprisingly benign old one, Mr. Collins, whose wife’s hospitality she accepts at Longbourn and whose marital troubles she finds herself resolving.
But it isn’t until Mary takes up residence in London with her warm and welcoming aunt and uncle, the Gardiners, that she’s able to address her own predicament and the daffodil starts to hold her own against the lilies. Another nemesis appears: Miss Bingley is, it seems, still on the hunt for a husband. And not one but two suitors hang about Mary in Mrs. Gardiner’s drawing room, drinking gallons of tea. As befitting an Austen clone novel, there are misunderstandings that keep the right young man from popping the question. “It had not been so difficult to consider abandoning the idea of love,” Mary forlornly tells herself, “when she had never truly experienced it.”
Will the endlessly interfering Mrs. Bennet achieve her life’s ambition: seeing all her daughters married? The answer isn’t really in doubt. And neither is the wisdom of the lesson Mary imparts to Hadlow’s readers: “The best response to glorious, unexpected happiness was not to seek explanation for its appearance but simply to embrace it and be glad.”
Alida Becker is a former editor at the Book Review.
Why Are We Living in a Golden Age of Historical Fiction?
By Megan O’Grady
Fiction That Takes You Back in Time
By Emma L. McAleavy
Victories, Defeats and the Science of Sports
Six new sports books this season cover everything from surfing to cognitive psychology.
- BOUTON , by Mitchell Nathanson
- THE HOT HAND , by Ben Cohen
- THE INSIDE GAME , by Keith Law
- THE VICTORY MACHINE , by Ethan Sherwood Strauss
- WAVE WOMAN , by Vicky Heldreich Durand
- THE MAKING OF A MIRACLE , by Mike Eruzione
By John Swansburg
“Take your pants off, Bouton. We’ve got a long night ahead of us.” It sounds like a line from a story about ballplayers being ballplayers — the sort of ribald yarn that made Jim Bouton’s classic tell-all “Ball Four” notorious among baseball’s old guard and irresistible to its fans.
This particular command to disrobe, however, was spoken by the grizzled New York Post reporter Leonard Shecter , who edited “Ball Four.” It was his standard greeting when Bouton would arrive at his un-air-conditioned apartment during the summer of 1969. Bouton, a former 20-game winner for the Yankees, was by then attempting to hang on to a fading career by reinventing himself as a knuckleballer for the expansion Seattle Pilots. He was also embarking on a second career, as a writer. Whenever the Pilots’ schedule took him to New York, he would visit Shecter’s sweaty rooms and the two pants-less men would pore over Bouton’s notes, jotted down on hotel stationery, envelopes, airsickness bags and toilet paper.
Those scraps are now in the Library of Congress. Bouton and Shecter’s unexpurgated account of life in the big leagues kicked open the clubhouse door to reveal the booze-swilling, greenie-popping, skirt-chasing man-children within. No one was spared. In one indelible scene, a hung-over Mickey Mantle is called upon to pinch-hit and manages to blast a home run. As he returns to the dugout, with Yankee Stadium in full roar, he grumbles, “Those people don’t know how tough that really was.” They knew now.
When Mitchell Nathanson , a professor of sports law at Villanova, approached Bouton about writing his biography, the pitcher gave his blessing, on one condition: that Nathanson write about him with the honesty he’d tried to bring to the game of baseball. In BOUTON: The Life of a Baseball Original (University of Nebraska, 448 pp., $34.95), Nathanson has mostly obliged, delivering a frank if manifestly fond account of a remarkable American life.
Nathanson moves crisply through the deep back story, though he knows a good detail when he sees one. An ancestor bayoneted by an English infantryman at the Battle of Bunker Hill was “the first, but certainly not the last, Bouton the establishment desired to see filleted.”
Jim Bouton ran afoul of the baseball establishment well before he published “Ball Four.” He was an odd fit for the hidebound and hierarchical Yankees. In his free time, Bouton painted watercolors, made costume jewelry and complained about his salary. Unlike the team’s taciturn veterans, he loved jawboning with the press, whether or not he’d pitched that day. In the words of one writer, “He had an opinion even when he didn’t have an opinion.”
Bouton took a particular shine to Shecter, a fellow iconoclast on whom the Yankee mystique was lost. The two proved to be ideal writing partners. Bouton had an eye for the indignities of the baseball life. Shecter had a nose for where the best material would be buried, and he nurtured Bouton’s worst — which is to say best — instincts. Among the artifacts that Nathanson uncovered is a lawyer’s letter enumerating 42 potentially actionable items in the “Ball Four” manuscript: “The statement that the author hated the Yankees is evidence of malice. … The statement that Steve Barber and Bud Daley are deformed is libelous. … The description of Ray Oyler’s aroused condition is an invasion of privacy.”
Bouton never again scaled the literary heights of “Ball Four” — evidence, perhaps, of how critical Shecter was to his success. But he also never stopped being Jim Bouton. At an antiwar rally in Central Park, he runs into Elliott Gould, who offers him a role in “The Long Goodbye,” in which the director Robert Altman would do to the detective story what Bouton had done to the ballplayer memoir. With a former teammate, Bouton creates Big League Chew, the shredded bubble gum designed to imitate chewing tobacco. (It was a runaway hit, earning Bouton the millions he never made in baseball.) Late in life — Bouton died in 2019 — he took up the quixotic cause of saving an antique ballpark in the Berkshires, where he’d retired. The effort placed him in the ostensibly unfamiliar role of Defender of Baseball Tradition. But as any careful reader of “Ball Four” knows, only a man who loved the game would have tried so desperately to keep playing it.
One of Jim Bouton’s Seattle teammates was Mike Hegan, a streaky hitter. “He’s either hitting .450 or .150,” Bouton wrote. Our unshakable belief in the sanctity of the streak is the subject of THE HOT HAND: The Mystery and Science of Streaks (Custom House, 304 pp., $32.50), by Ben Cohen , who covers the N.B.A. for The Wall Street Journal. Cohen’s fascination with streaks dates back to a high school basketball game in which every shot he attempted seemed to go in. Cohen was an unaccomplished athlete, yet with each make, his confidence grew: “In one quarter of one game, I scored more points than I had in my entire life.”
Cohen wants to understand what happened that day. Or more accurately, whether something happened that day. As he points out, the hot hand is the Bigfoot of basketball, a myth that won’t die. Athletes swear it exists because they’ve felt it. Fans swear it exists because they’ve seen it. Scientists have long said it’s all in our imagination.
A 1985 article co-authored by the famous cognitive psychologist Amos Tversky and two others seemed to lay the matter to rest. Using the makes and misses of the 1981 Philadelphia 76ers, Tversky et al. demonstrated that the hot hand was an illusion. In fact, they found that players were more likely to make a shot after missing one than after making one.
Tversky chalked up the misconception to the sort of cognitive bias he made his name identifying — in this case, the natural human instinct to see patterns in randomness. And yet, as even Tversky allowed, his paper did little to convince the world of sport. Having been told of the psychologist’s findings, Red Auerbach replied: “Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.”
Cohen’s pursuit of the hot hand takes him to surprising places. A chapter on Shakespeare’s plague-year “hot streak,” in which the quarantined Bard supposedly wrote “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra,” is timely if not entirely convincing. More engaging is his sketch of Mark Turmell, the arcade-game designer who created NBA Jam. Turmell coded the hot hand right into the gameplay: After a player made three shots in a row, the ball would burst into flame whenever he touched it. In 1993 alone, Jam made $1 billion, from quarters. Such is the appeal of the streak.
Of course, just because human beings find streaks entertaining doesn’t mean they exist. Lately, though, new footprints have been spotted. The most intriguing stretch of the book comes near its end, in which Cohen considers the work of a new generation of statisticians, armed with more sophisticated data sets than Tversky had at his disposal. For example, it’s now possible to consider where on the floor and under what circumstances a shot was taken. One pair of researchers has found that when you control for shot difficulty, hard evidence of the hot hand emerges.
The work of Amos Tversky is also at the heart of THE INSIDE GAME: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves (Morrow/HarperCollins, 272 pp., $28.99), a brisk, witty book by Keith Law, a senior baseball writer at The Athletic . In each chapter, Law identifies a piece of wrongheaded baseball thinking and attributes it to cognitive bias.
You might think that, in the post-“Moneyball” era, baseball’s decision makers have become more rational. Law’s book reveals that our worst habits of mind are not so easily overcome. One common pitfall for front office types is “base-rate neglect,” which leads general managers to ignore a mountain of evidence saying one thing in favor of a specific example that says another. Law points to this phenomenon to explain why teams continue to select high school pitchers in the first round of the draft. The track record of such selections is dismal: For every Clayton Kershaw there’s a Matt Hobgood, Mike Stodolka and Chris Gruler. The pattern holds even if you consider only the top 10 picks in the draft — in theory, the surest things. “If you pick in the top 10 and you choose a high school pitcher, you’re the guy at the craps table betting on eight the hard way because it sounds cool to say it,” Law writes. Yet G.M.s keep placing the bet.
Of course, even the best general managers make mistakes. As Ethan Sherwood Strauss reports in THE VICTORY MACHINE: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty (PublicAffairs, 224 pp., $ 28 ) , Bob Myers, the G.M. of the Golden State Warriors and the architect of the most dominant team in recent N.B.A. history, did not immediately appreciate the talent at his disposal. In 2011, Myers approached the New Orleans Hornets about a deal for Chris Paul, offering Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in exchange. The Hornets were ready to make the deal, but Paul balked. He didn’t want to play for the rebuilding Warriors. “With that,” Strauss writes, “the Hornets lost out on the greatest backcourt of all time.”
Strauss follows the Warriors on their rise from doormat to dynasty (and back again). As a longtime Warriors beat writer, first for ESPN and now for The Athletic, he has notebooks that overflow with good color. The machinations of deep-pocketed owners are not always the stuff of great storytelling, but Strauss’s account of how Joe Lacob and Peter Guber outmaneuvered an even wealthier rival to acquire the team has an appealing cloak-and-dagger quality. The billionaire businessman Larry Ellison had been considered such a shoe-in that The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story headlined “Ellison Reportedly Close to Buying Warriors.” After Guber and Lacob steal the team out from under the Oracle founder, Guber waves a copy of the story in the air as if it read “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
A key early decision by the new owners was to fire Mark Jackson in favor of the first-time coach Steve Kerr. Kerr tells Strauss of the months before his first season, in which he sought out wisdom from other coaches. He had played for two of the winningest men in N.B.A. history in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. But he credits two football coaches with helping him find his footing in the locker room. From Bill Parcells, he learned how to criticize players without demoralizing them. From Pete Carroll, he learned how to turn abstract principles into a team culture.
One of Kerr’s principles was “play with joy,” and the once lowly Warriors took to it immediately. Strauss writes that when he would watch games with advance scouts, they’d tell him it was their easiest night of the season, because there was nothing to scout: It was all improvisation. In Kerr’s first season with the team, Golden State won 67 games and the N.B.A. title.
If the Warriors needed to be prodded to play with joy, the joy of play came naturally to Betty Pembroke Heldreich . WAVE WOMAN: The Life and Struggles of a Surfing Pioneer (SparkPress, 185 pp., paper, $29.95) recounts a life of adventure and rugged individualism lived in an era when such things were thought to be the exclusive province of men. Heldreich trained for the 1936 Olympics in freestyle swimming and, inspired by the example of Amelia Earhart, studied to be a pilot. A broken leg suffered in a plane crash ended her swimming and flying careers prematurely. It was only at age 41 that she discovered the sport in which she would become a foundational figure. After taking a surfing lesson while on vacation, she was so smitten that she lobbied her family to move from California to Hawaii.
“Wave Woman” tells Heldreich’s story from the perspective of her daughter, Vicky Heldreich Durand , who, like her mother, was drawn to the famed breaks at Makaha, Oahu. “Surfing was not just a sport; it was our lifestyle,” Durand writes. “Surfing dominated our thoughts and conversations: When could we get away to go surfing; where should we surf; and, afterward, how had each ride played out?”
Heldreich was among the first women to participate in the competitions held by the Waikiki Surf Club in the 1950s, and she traveled as far as Lima, Peru, as an ambassador for the sport, taking first prize — a two-foot silver trophy — in a contest at Playa Kon Tiki. More so than a cabinet of hardware, however, Heldreich’s legacy is the women surfers who came after her, including Rell Sunn, the founder of the women’s professional surfing tour and a top-ranked longboarder. Shortly before she died of cancer, in 1998, Rell visited Heldreich to say goodbye. “Betty, you and your friends were the first generation of Makaha women surfers,” Rell said. “You took up a sport for fun and for freedom.” Heldreich added: “And for a more satisfying life.”
THE MAKING OF A MIRACLE: The Untold Story of the Captain of the 1980 Gold Medal-Winning US Olympic Hockey Team (Harper/HarperCollins, 288 pp., $27.99 ) promises an “untold story.” One senses, however, that Mike Eruzione has told this story before. Unlike many of his teammates, Eruzione, who scored the game-winning goal to defeat the Russians, did not go on to play in the N.H.L. Instead, he parlayed his Lake Placid heroics into a lifetime of lucrative speaking gigs. This is not a knock on his book, written with the New York Times reporter Neal E. Boudette. On the contrary, the anecdotes it collects are all the better for surely having been workshopped over the past 40 years. Eruzione knows his best material.
“The Making of a Miracle” is a hockey Horatio Alger story. Eruzione grew up in Winthrop, Mass., a working-class enclave just outside Boston. When he was a boy, the town had no hockey rink, and Mike had no skates. The fearsome Russian national team would ultimately be vanquished by a young man who learned hockey on a flooded tennis court wearing his sister’s figure skates. “It didn’t help that the skates had blue pompoms on the toes, either,” he deadpans. Despite these humble origins, Eruzione enjoys a successful college hockey career at Boston University and, thanks to hard work and some of what hockey players call “puck luck,” he earns a place on Herb Brooks’s 1980 Olympic team.
“I’ll be your coach, but I won’t be your friend,” Brooks tells his players on their first day together. He keeps his promise, imposing a grueling fitness regimen and riding the young men ruthlessly. Like Bouton, Eruzione is attuned to the absurd, and he conveys the casual cruelty and homespun hilarity of Brooks’s put-downs: “Suter, you’re playing worse and worse every day, and right now you’re playing like the middle of next week”; “Ramsey, you’re an 18-year-old prima donna and next year you’re going to be a 19-year-old prima donna”; “Strobel, you’ve got a million-dollar set of legs and a 10-cent fart for a brain.” A 10-cent fart?
Eruzione believes Brooks was hard on his players because they needed a common enemy to bring them together. The team was made up of former college rivals, and bad blood lingered. Early on, the B.U. guys would start in on the Midwesterners, who would roll their eyes at the East Coast preppies. “Don’t get regional,” became a team rule.
The Miracle on Ice has long since passed into American lore. Eruzione’s account of the game itself can’t help being entertaining, but far more interesting are the details he embroiders around the edges. The night before, Eruzione bums a ride from the Olympic Village to a nearby campground and drinks a Miller High Life with his dad, an unthinkable pregame ritual for a contemporary Olympian. Also unthinkable: The game was aired on tape delay, leaving scores of Eruzione cousins back in Winthrop to madly scan the radio dial for updates.
After the game, Eruzione’s irrepressible teammate and fellow Bostonian Jack O’Callahan decides the moment has come. He gets regional. The historic victory at Lake Placid, he says, will be remembered alongside the Americans’ win over the British at Bunker Hill. A reporter gently reminds the jubilant defenseman that the Americans lost at Bunker Hill. “I don’t want to hear that,” he replies. “We won, I tell you we won!”
John Swansburg is a senior editor at The Atlantic.
A Man of Few Words, 90% of Them Memorable
By John Williams
The Future Is Here, and Uncomfortably Close to Home
By Karen Thompson Walker
Alicia Keys and Tori Amos Are the Headliners for This Season’s Music Books
Lauretta Charlton reviews Keys’s “More Myself,” Amos’s “Resistance” and Peter Gatien’s “The Club King.”
- RESISTANCE , by Tori Amos
- MORE MYSELF , by Alicia Keys with Michelle Burford
- THE CLUB KING , by Peter Gatien
By Lauretta Charlton
Oh, the ’90s. How special you were with your plaid shirts, midriffs, Lilith Fairs, gangsta rap and boy bands. I don’t feel nostalgic for you, exactly, but you’re never far from my mind, especially your music, which is interesting because so much about music has changed since you were here, starting with the business itself. Today aspiring artists write rap songs about horses and cowboy boots, put them on SoundCloud and, against all odds, go on to delight the entire country, with an able assist from Billy Ray Cyrus, whose biggest hit was released in 1992. There are no massive brick-and-mortar record stores. There are no release schedules that music critics can rely on to plan their reviews. In many ways, what I love about you is that you now seem so tidy and predictable. This, I imagine, is what makes reading books about artists and other music types who came up during the ’90s — that bygone era when labels were still flush, there was no Spotify and people still waited hours to get into nightclubs — so quaint and entertaining.
And thus I went into Tori Amos’s new book, RESISTANCE: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage (Atria, 261 pp., $26), with an open mind, ready to feel old. Amos has maintained an impressive career since her first solo album, “Little Earthquakes,” in 1992. And as you might expect from the title of her latest book — or from anyone who writes lyrics about rape, religion and the patriarchy, for that matter — she is uncompromising and very earnest about the power of music to effect change, just like that friend from high school who practiced Wicca and carried amethyst in her pocket.
The book is not a memoir, although Amos does write about starting her career on the piano bar circuit in Washington, D.C., playing for suits and pols. It mostly has her reflecting on her songs as tools of protest, against everything from the “warlords of hate” to “the imperial authoritarian agenda” of the greedy men for whom she once played music, including a vast repertoire of covers. In one memorable chapter, she tells of having her album rejected by her record label. In the early ’90s, when Amos was just getting started, it was guitar-playing, headbanging grunge types who were demanding all our attention and so executives thought Amos’s songs needed more guitar, just like a producer asking for more cowbell on Blue Öyster Cult’s “The Reaper.”
And yet she persisted, by turning to “the Muses,” whose words appear throughout the book like ghostly apparitions out on the wiley, windy moors. (The words of the Muses — capital M, always — appear in italics, giving the book a stream-of-consciousness quality befitting an artist known to be preoccupied with faeries and Greek mythology.) “The response from the Muses for artists, whatever the form your art takes, is to scatter fertile creative seeds into our Great Mother, giving her thanks for all she does for her daughters and sons,” Amos writes later in the book. “Male artists are being called to join their sisters in planting seeds to confront the corruption of those who would subject Earth’s Daughters to the Patriarchal will.”
Each chapter reads as though Amos is performing incantations, just like those scenes in “The Craft,” from 1996. That is to say, like her music, Amos’s book is passionate, resounding and angry. In other words, you need to be in the mood for it. I recommend burning incense and wearing all black as you read.
If there’s a muse in Alicia Keys’s new memoir, MORE MYSELF: A Journey (Flatiron, 256 pp., $29.99), written with Michelle Burford, it’s New York City just as the ’90s were coming to a close, back when black people could still afford brownstones in Brooklyn. Keys, another pianist, didn’t grow up in Brooklyn, nor did she have to claw her way out of the staid piano bar circuit. She was raised in Hell’s Kitchen by a single mother whom she affectionately calls “the blackest white woman I know.” One of her first memories was of watching sex workers on the streets of Manhattan in freezing cold weather, and telling herself that she would never be one of those women. Her first piano was a used upright that she received from a piano tuner who had no use for it.
Keys, too, tells of navigating a record business in which she was told her music needed to be “less piano driven” in order to sell. “Trouble was, no one quite knew what to do with a piano prodigy in cornrows, mixing classical music with hip-hop beats and bass lines alongside a dash of gospel,” she writes. One person did: Clive Davis, who would go on to become Keys’s mentor and help her score her first big breakthrough moment, playing her debut single, “Fallin’,” on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Multiple Grammy wins followed.
Being catapulted into fame but not being able to handle the success is a well-worn trope in music memoirs. Thankfully, Keys doesn’t spend too much time reflecting on how lonely it is to be rich, famous and friends with Bono. Bob Dylan, who included her name in the lyrics of his 2006 song “Thunder on the Mountain,” barely gets a mention. Instead Keys spends her time writing movingly about her relationship to her family, including how she reconciled with an absent father who was not around when she was growing up, a star student at the Professional Performing Arts School who would later drop out of Columbia University to pursue a music career.
Even though she was a killer student and a piano prodigy — at ease with Stevie Wonder and Chopin, Bach and Biggie — Keys still found time to get into trouble, smoking weed and sneaking into clubs like Tunnel, which was founded by Peter Gatien, the famous nightlife impresario who pleaded guilty to tax evasion in the ’90s, and who has a new book of his own.
Talk about someone with an ax to grind! In Gatien’s book, THE CLUB KING: My Rise, Reign, and Fall in New York Nightlife (Little A, 253 pp., $24.95), bones are picked. The villain is Rudy Giuliani, who became mayor of New York City in 1994. A year later, Limelight, Gatien’s most famous club, was raided by the authorities for drugs. But let’s not forget the exposition: Gatien grew up wearing a coonskin hat and watching “The Ed Sullivan Show” in a working-class family in Canada. His obsession with American consumerism was clear from an early age. He called it — ahem — “cultural cocaine.” He charts his career crisscrossing the globe opening clubs in London, New York, Toronto, Miami and Chicago. He opened his first club, the Aardvark, in 1973, in Cornwall, Ontario. Rush, also from Canada, was the first band he booked. He eventually ran four popular clubs in New York City — Limelight, the Palladium, Tunnel and Club USA. He tells of working with Funkmaster Flex to run security at Tunnel, famous for showcasing rap artists: They’d screen people at the door as if they were being booked at Rikers. Pleasant experience, I’m sure.
The more successful his clubs became, though, the more Gatien’s marriages suffered, as did his relationship with his daughters. It all became too much, which he is very humble about: “I tried to stay out of the figurative limelight, but the spectacular success of the real Limelight came with a higher public profile than I’d ever had before.” The lapsed Catholic and college dropout turned to drugs. Freebasing cocaine, but only occasionally, as he tells it.
Throughout the book it becomes clear that Gatien has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about how things went down for him in the ’90s. He goes to great lengths to show us that he played by the rules, mostly. You come away thinking it was Giuliani who deserved to fall. (No arguments there!) Gatien was arrested and charged with conspiracy for allegedly allowing drug use at his clubs, but he was found not guilty. He later pleaded guilty to state tax evasion. “I paid my taxes. But I also sometimes doled out payroll in cash,” he explains. “I dotted every i but occasionally failed to cross every t . So sue me , I’d think. But that’s exactly what New York State did.”
The ’90s. What a bitch.
Lauretta Charlton is an editor at The Times.
Dance This Mess Around: When Georgia Recreated Rock ’n’ Roll
By Richard Fausset
For Loretta Lynn, Books Are ‘Friends That Keep Me Company’
Puddings, Pimento Patty Melts, Sweet Potato Muffins: Drool-Worthy New Cookbooks
Drool-Worthy New Cookbooks
- BEYOND THE NORTH WIND , by Darra Goldstein
- THE IRISH COOKBOOK , by Jp McMahon
- THE BOOK OF ST. JOHN , by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver
- SEE YOU ON SUNDAY , by Sam Sifton
- MEALS, MUSIC, AND MUSES , by Alexander Smalls with Veronica Chambers
- THE PHOENICIA DINER COOKBOOK , by Mike Cioffi, Chris Bradley and Sara B. Franklin
- HOW TO DRESS AN EGG , by Ned Baldwin and Peter Kaminsky
By Jennifer Reese
One hundred and six recipes. Frankly, I was a bit embarrassed when I counted the lentil soups, Russian salts, creamy diner puddings, bacon cheeseburger tacos, antique Irish whiskey drinks and sheet pans of roasted broccoli that I made between February and the first week of April while evaluating the best cookbooks of the season. Weren’t there better ways I could have spent that time, like, say, sewing masks? Yes, but when you’re quarantined at home with a lot of nervous energy, a thigh-high stack of cookbooks and an assignment, it’s easy to get carried away.
It was hard to choose the best of these books. There are so many wonderful titles this year, books that will introduce you to novel pasta shapes from underexplored corners of Italy and others that will help you eat more vegetables. In the end, though, there were seven books in the stack I kept reaching for to try new recipes, reread engrossing essays tucked between those recipes or study photographs that transported me beyond the four walls of my home.
The books have little in common. Two dive deep into regional cuisines. There’s a celebration of diner standbys, an eccentric restaurant bible and a couple of books aimed squarely at the home cook. But each of these books is a delight to read while sitting on the sofa, and each got me off that sofa and into the kitchen. Each promises that it’s possible to eat a little better, which is to say, to live a little better. Each, in its own way, fulfills that promise.
At the top of my list is BEYOND THE NORTH WIND: Russia in Recipes and Lore (Ten Speed Press, 307 pp., $37.50), Darra Goldstein’s second book about Russian cooking. (Her first, 1983’s “A Taste of Russia,” is a lively introduction to mainstream Russian cuisine that is worth seeking out.) Here, she is on a quest for the primeval roots of Russian cooking, and she finds them in cold, remote towns like Teriberka, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where she feasts on gargantuan crab legs boiled in seawater, dipped in butter and washed down with vodka. In the village of Kimzha, home of the world’s northernmost functioning windmill, Goldstein eats butter-slathered rye pies filled with cracked barley, and a custardy milk-and-egg omelet, “the finest example of curds and whey I’ve ever tasted, with a dreamy texture like that of junket.” Her passion for the country’s cuisine is intoxicating, her knowledge deep.
A professor of Russian and the founding editor of the scholarly food journal Gastronomica, Goldstein can explain the cultural symbolism of birch trees and quote Gogol, but she is also a vivid, intimate, sometimes even breathless, writer. She makes you feel as if you’re right there with her in an old friend’s stark room as he pulls a jar of salted mushrooms from under his bed to accompany their drinks: “They tasted of the earth. No vinegar puckered the mouth or distracted from their dusky flavor,” Goldstein writes. “We toasted the bounty of the earth and our acquaintance.”
Some of the foods Goldstein describes we can experience only vicariously. But a lot of the recipes can and should be made in the American kitchen. Start with the chapter on dumplings, pancakes and, above all, pies, which can be large or small, sweet or savory, filled with salmon, chicken, scallions, sweet cheese, basically anything. There are nourishing hot and cold soups and a cornucopia of pickles and fermented foods. “For a Russian peasant, sourness was the essential element in all food and drink,” Goldstein writes. I’m no Russian peasant, but my first bite of Goldstein’s tangy fermented oatmeal was like tasting sourdough bread after a lifetime of supermarket white.
Like Goldstein, Jp McMahon wants to find the primordial roots of a cuisine — in his case, that of his native Ireland. But unlike Goldstein, McMahon is also fascinated by recent trends. “For me Irish food is the sum of food consumed on this island regardless of what tribe, class or ethnic group cooked it,” he writes. Needless to say, THE IRISH COOKBOOK (Phaidon, 432 pp., $49.95) is thick. McMahon explores the 10,000 years of Irish cooking before the arrival of the potato, when islanders lived on local oysters, berries, salmon, oats and a huge variety of dairy products. (“These would need a book to themselves!” he writes.) But he gives the spud its due, with recipes for champ, colcannon and boxty.
McMahon is scholarly, but also personal and inclusive. The variety of recipes here is part of the charm. There’s a recipe for oysters fried in beef drippings, adapted from a 1713 cookbook, as well as his mother’s Christmas trifle, which contains both sherry and raspberry Jell-O. The chapter on breads is particularly rewarding. A recipe for so-called “spotted dog” yields a craggy raisin-studded loaf that my husband and I happily hacked away at for days. McMahon’s yeasted “batch bread” makes the ideal fluffy base for a butter-and-potato-chip sandwich. “Supremely comforting, I will always greet a crisp sandwich with great nostalgia,” McMahon writes. (While I feel no nostalgia, I did indeed find my first-ever crisp sandwich supremely comforting.) The recipe for soda-leavened brown bread alone is worth the price of this book. One thick slice, barely sweet and packed with seeds, is a full meal.
Leftover brown bread, should you have any, could go toward making the brown bread and marmalade parfait in the mischievous THE B OOK OF ST. JOHN (Ebury Press, 317 pp., $55), by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver, founders of London’s St. John restaurant. Anyone who has read Henderson’s previous books (like “The Whole Beast” and “Beyond Nose to Tail”) knows what to expect from this one: offal, hedonism and drollery. Familiar recipes from the St. John repertoire reappear, like a chocolate baked alaska and the justly famous Welsh rarebit. But there are plenty of new recipes here, some of which, I must say, are revolting. Ferguson and Gulliver have to be pranking us with a potato-topped Devonshire pie filled with lung, spleen, tripe and gooseberries. (The pie was conceived by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to feed 18th-century prisoners on the cheap.) Henderson may genuinely relish Devonshire pie, but he’s also like a naughty boy who pulls a toad out of his pocket to shock prissy onlookers.
From “The Book of St. John,” Welsh rarebit (left) and grilled lamb’s hearts, peas and mint.
Don’t be shocked, just enjoy the performance. And even if you don’t make it (you won’t), the recipe — like all St. John recipes — is fun to read: “Slice your potatoes to the thickness of a pound coin and cover the pie filling with a single layer, expressing yourself architecturally as you go. … A wee singe at the edges is no bad thing. A masterpiece.” Fortunately, there are also recipes you’ll want to make. Amid the deep-fried brains and grilled hearts hide jewel-like recipes, like the butter-drenched “mushy celeriac,” which made me regret all the mean things I used to say about root vegetables. So-called “anchovy gunge” (ugly names are part of the St. John shtick) is a salty, garlicky, umami-packed sauce I now want to spread on a slice of toast every afternoon. A three-tiered blackberry Pavlova filled with bright fruit and snowy cream is a showstopper. The Liberty Hall sorbet made with pineapple and rum, a refreshing treat. So is this funny, sui generis book.
Sam Sifton’s SEE YOU ON SUNDAY: A Cookbook for Family and Friends (Random House, 355 pp., $35) doubles as a manifesto on the importance of gathering people regularly for home-cooked meals as well as a smart, bighearted handbook for doing just that. The generosity of spirit in this book mirrors the generosity Sifton — the head of the Food desk and an assistant managing editor at The New York Times — would like us to show our friends and family. For years, Sifton has cooked regular Sunday meals, in walk-up apartments, vacation homes in Maine and a Brooklyn parish hall where pots of stew and chowder were set before families and strangers on long folding tables. Sifton: “The point was to cook or, more accurate, the point was to gather around a table with family and eat, and to do that regularly enough that people knew it was happening, could depend on it somehow, this consistency in a world that doesn’t offer a lot of that outside of work and pain.”
The recipes here are, for the most part, forgiving, unfussy, delicious and easily stretched. Many can be made ahead and may be familiar to readers of Sifton’s column. His version of Momofuku’s bo ssam, “a moist, fragrant collapse of roast pork beneath a tight and salty caramel crust,” and slow-cooked Mississippi roast, his take on a popular beef recipe that originated in the South, were already favorites in my repertoire. But “big meats,” as Sifton calls them, can be expensive, not to mention unhealthy, and there are also chapters on beans and rice, pasta and pizza. Don’t go broke — and don’t kill yourself trying to pull off something exotic or elegant every week, he warns. Sifton has served guests hot dogs, fried until “their casings burst, creating a torn and beautiful exterior.” For dessert, he has brought out frozen Mallomars. He makes an easygoing party with fried hot dogs and frozen Mallomars sound not only acceptable, but aspirational. “The whole point of Sunday dinner,” he writes, “is just to have it.”
Sifton’s is not the only 2020 cookbook to promote the hot dog feast. “Some years ago I gave myself a big birthday party and I decided it would be a hot dog party,” Alexander Smalls says in MEALS, MUSIC, AND MUSES: Recipes F rom My African American Kitchen ( Flatiron, 224 pp. , $35) , which he wrote with Veronica Chambers, who is an editor at The Times. “Large silver-plated chafing dishes were the centerpieces and container for my prized gourmet hot dogs, which were perfectly paired with martinis and pitchers of mint julep.” I made Smalls’s chili dogs — franks on steamed buns topped with beef chili — and they belong on silver serving dishes.
Smalls, a chef and classically trained opera singer, grew up in South Carolina, where he learned to cut out biscuits with his mother and smuggled bags of fried okra into the movies as “my better-than-popcorn snack.” The premise of his warm, ebullient and nostalgic book is to offer a “playlist” of African-American dishes — “the very best of what I have eaten, cooked and imagined.” Smalls groups the dishes into chapters that correspond with genres of African-American music. Rice, grits and gravies go in a “spirituals” chapter — humble dishes that pair with “simple, soulful songs that African-American slaves composed to help them survive their darkest days.” The gospel chapter, meanwhile, is full of “joyful vegetable-forward dishes that taste good, and make you feel good.” (Flip to the back and there’s a musical playlist for each chapter.) Everything I made from this book was superb: tender sweet potato muffins, spicy red rice, lemon icebox pie, potato salad and, above all, chicken bog, a gentle Low Country stew of rice, chicken and sausage. Smalls: “There are very few people who can deny the inherent comfort of a rich chicken-and-gravy dish like this.” I certainly can’t.
“Diners have always been bastions of democracy and approachability,” Mike Cioffi, Chris Bradley and Sara B. Franklin write in the introduction to THE PHOENICIA DINER COOKBOOK: Dishes and Dispatches From the Catskill Mountains (Clarkson Potter, 252 pp., $32.50). “They are places where anyone can find something they will want to eat.” That’s a perfect description of their hospitable book, with recipes for everything from lunch-counter standards (chocolate egg cream, Salisbury steak) to contemporary stalwarts, like kale salad. In 2011, Cioffi bought a languishing Catskill diner and set out to create a place that customers “would want to eat at all the time.”
I want to eat from this cookbook all the time, starting with a basic tuna salad transformed by the simple but brilliant addition of mashed avocado. I would also like to, but shouldn’t, eat the fabulous oversize oatmeal pecan cookies all the time. Likewise a boozy, rich butterscotch pudding and an even richer chocolate pudding. Then there’s the pimento cheese patty melt. Soft pimento cheese melts into the beef and caramelized onions, lavishly buttered rye toast soaking up the juices. I ate the best diner patty melt I’ve ever had in my own kitchen.
While you can cook a quick meal from any of the books on my list, the only one dedicated to helping you do this, night after night, is HOW TO DRESS AN EGG: Surprising and Simple Ways to Cook Dinner (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 232 pp., $30 ) , by Ned Baldwin and Peter Kaminsky. The title is misleading. This is not an egg cookbook. Baldwin provides foolproof techniques for preparing 19 basic dishes — from boiled eggs to roast chicken — followed by instructions on how to change things up. A pot-roasted pork shoulder can be torn into hunks to accompany steamed clams, or tucked into a sandwich with watercress and aioli. You can toss warm broccoli with quick-pickled yellow raisins and sunflower seeds, or pair with poached prunes, prosciutto and goat cheese. Baldwin’s method for “gently cooking” shrimp yielded the perfect, springy shrimp I’d never managed to make before. I used them one night in a lovely, creamy retro salad, like something ladies might have eaten at a bridal shower in 1965. Even better — and one of the best dishes of the 106 I cooked — was the lobster-style shrimp roll. You can pull this miraculous sandwich together in about 20 minutes after you return to the kitchen from wherever you happened to spend the day, whether that’s out in the world, or just the other room.
Jennifer Reese is a book critic who has reviewed for The Washington Post, NPR, Slate and Entertainment Weekly.
Kitchen Confidential: Three Culinary Memoirs
By Lisa Abend
The Most Important (and Literary?) Meal of the Day
By Dwight Garner
New Hollywood Books for Summer
A loving portrait of Natalie Wood by her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner; Val Kilmer’s memoir; and a tribute to the entertaining trash that is “Valley of the Dolls.”
- MORE THAN LOVE , by Natasha Gregson Wagner
- I’M YOUR HUCKLEBERRY , by Val Kilmer
- DOLLS! DOLLS! DOLLS! , by Stephen Rebello
By Caryn James
Books about Hollywood are always, at heart, about fame in all its frivolity or, in the case of Natasha Gregson Wagner, its darkness. Imagine waking up as an 11-year-old at a sleepover and hearing on the radio that your mother has died. For most of us that would be no more than a nightmare. It was real and one of the costs of fame for Wagner, who begins her graceful, loving memoir of her mother, Natalie Wood, with an affecting account of waking to news that she had drowned. MORE THAN LOVE: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood (Scribner, 293 pp., $28) is the best of a crop of new books that take us into the turbulent world of stardom.
Wagner’s book is part biography of Wood and part autobiography about how her mother’s early death shaped her own adult life, with decades of anxiety and insecurity. Wagner was a child of Hollywood. Her father, the producer Richard Gregson, and Wood divorced when Natasha was an infant. Her mother remarried her first husband, the actor Robert Wagner, a situation Natasha found “perfectly unremarkable.” She called her fathers Daddy Gregson and Daddy Wagner.
Wood was just 43 when she died in 1981, having drowned while staying on a boat with her husband and their guest, Christopher Walken. Rumors of foul play, never proved, have flourished for so long that Wood’s death has overshadowed her genuine talent, on display in a career that includes her childhood role in “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Splendor in the Grass.” Her daughter learned early “not to believe a single word printed on the cover of a tabloid.”
Wagner’s book effectively reclaims Wood from tawdry gossip and shallowness. Her mother’s fame, she writes, meant that she “had to protect myself from other people’s perceptions of her.” The image she creates is often an idealized, child’s-eye view. In vivid scenes, she depicts Wood as a devoted mother, hanging around the house with her hair in pigtails, watching Natasha and her younger sister splash around in the pool. She is also the glamorous hostess of many big, happy parties with friends like Laurence Olivier and Fred Astaire flowing into the living room. At times Wagner is a cleareyed adult, though, recalling that her mother liked to drink too much and had a fraught relationship with her own overbearing mother.
Wagner addresses the questions surrounding Wood’s death head-on. No one can be certain, but she most likely slipped and fell into the water while trying to secure a dinghy to the boat. Wagner fiercely defends her stepfather against any suspicion. And she makes a convincing case that the police investigated the death again in 2011 because the boat’s captain changed his story to sell a tell-all book. As the memoir grapples with the corrosive cost of fame, Wagner follows her mother’s unillusioned lead. Wagner quotes a magazine article Wood wrote, never published in her lifetime. She says of being a star, “Part of the bargain is being exploited, misunderstood and occasionally misled.”
Val Kilmer’s love-hate relationship with his celebrity is at the center of I’M YOUR HUCKLEBERRY (Simon & Schuster, 309 pp., $27.99). Some actors seem to revel in their eccentricity, and Kilmer is certainly one. “Welcome to the pinball machine of my mind,” he says. “Indulge me.” That turns out to be as much warning as enticement. In this scattershot, largely unrevealing memoir — the wackadoo title is a line from his role as Doc Holliday in “Tombstone” and, he says, a nod to his favorite novel, “Huckleberry Finn” — short chapters veer from observations on his artistic ambitions to the loves and lost loves in his personal life.
His middle-class boyhood was Hollywood-adjacent, in the San Fernando Valley. His parents were Christian Scientists, and their religion had lasting effects on their son. The word “healing” turns up often in his book, including a reference to the recent throat cancer that “miraculously healed much faster than any of the doctors predicted” but ruined his voice. In his early 20s he left the New York theater world and moved to Hollywood with his girlfriend, Cher, and for the rest of his career ricocheted between artistic aspirations and movie stardom.
His tone is sincere but that is not enough to make the memoir interesting, even when he insists that he once saw an angel who “extracted my heart” and replaced it with a bigger one. There is a section on Daryl Hannah as the love he let get away, and, sad to say, poetry (“Big Deal Haiku”) that should have remained in his journal. His most astute observations — such as the “postpartum blues” actors feel when they finish a film — are intriguing enough to make you wish for more. Instead, he zooms through his best-known films in pedestrian chapters on “Top Gun,” with his breakout role next to Tom Cruise, and as Jim Morrison in “The Doors.” Even after being labeled difficult and deciding to retire in 2000, he couldn’t quite leave Hollywood behind. “I had to make movies for money,” he says in another honest, unsurprising memory. “There are worse things I could’ve done.”
The consequences of fame create a cautionary tale in Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 best seller, “Valley of the Dolls,” in the film version released the following year and in Stephen Rebello’s DOLLS! DOLLS! DOLLS! Deep Inside “Valley of the Dolls,” the Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time (Penguin, 336 pp., paper, $17), which celebrates them both. Oh, never mind, who are they kidding? Rebello writes that Susann “exposes truths about the callousness and cruelty of the Biz,” but he must know that any such caution comes with a wink. Susann was counting on the trashy, voyeuristic pull in the story of show business women driven to drink and the pills they call dolls.
Rebello acknowledges that the campy cult movie is laugh-out-loud awful. Patty Duke overemotes as the actress Neely O’Hara, who famously tears the wig off an even more overemoting Susan Hayward as a has-been Broadway star, and tosses it in a toilet. Sharon Tate plays a starlet in movies that Neely calls “nudies.” But while Rebello says that he delights in the film’s “gloriously entertaining badness,” he never conveys why watching it is any fun. I dare you to keep a straight face when Neely, in a psychiatric hospital, cries: “I’m not crazy! I’m just addicted to dolls!”
He makes an occasional stab at a gossipy tone, repeating a rumor that Susann and Ethel Merman had a rocky affair. But mostly Rebello, the author of a valuable book about Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” offers worn-out stories about the film’s making, echoing previously published work, from Duke’s memoirs to a 20-year-old Vanity Fair feature. Writing with all the flair of Wikipedia, he lists names of actresses reportedly considered for various roles and two pages of singers who recorded the movie’s theme song.
He also includes one starry, forgotten tidbit. John Williams, now better known as the composer of the “Star Wars” theme, earned his first Academy Award nomination for the “Dolls” musical score. He didn’t win, but thanks to Williams you can call the movie the Oscar-nominated “Valley of the Dolls.” Sometimes there is no accounting for Hollywood.
Caryn James is a film critic for BBC Culture.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A Neurotic Filmmaker’s Life Story
By Dave Itzkoff
My Sister, My Daughter: Behind the Scenes of a Great American Film
By Mark Horowitz
Necessary Evils: New Horror Fiction
In these novels, housewives battle vampires, a troop of Sasquatch lays siege to a housing development and friends are haunted by a hunting trip gone very, very wrong.
- THE RETURN , by Rachel Harrison
- THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS , by Stephen Graham Jones
- THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB’S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES , by Grady Hendrix
- DEVOLUTION , by Max Brooks
- THE BEETLE , by Richard Marsh
- CATHERINE HOUSE , by Elisabeth Thomas
- THE UNSUITABLE , by Molly Pohlig
By Danielle Trussoni
Have you ever wanted to vanish? Not go invisible, but exit your life for a year, maybe two, and see where things stand when you get back? In Rachel Harrison’s debut, THE RETURN (Berkley, 296 pp., $26), a group of friends grapple with the disappearance, and mystifying return, of one of their own.
Once best friends, Mae, Molly, Elise and Julie went their separate ways after college. Now Mae works in fashion and dates models in New York. Molly, who lost part of a leg to cancer as a child, is a television producer in Los Angeles. Julie, an aspiring actress, married a high school crush and opened a bed-and-breakfast, only to realize that she made a mistake and should live in “L.A. or New York, not small-town Maine.” And Elise, who narrates the novel, abandoned her master’s degree only to end up emotionally paralyzed in a studio apartment in Buffalo.
Then Julie goes missing. When she reappears two years later, the four reunite at a luxe spa in the Catskills, the kind of place with themed rooms and crepe-making classes you might follow (or block) on Instagram. The darker side of their friendship unfolds when they are forced together again, as does the question of what really happened to Julie. She is no longer the person they once knew. Once overweight, Julie shows up “emaciated” with skin that “pools like melted wax” and teeth “chipped and discolored.” Her eyes are bloodshot and “the green of her irises skew yellow.” Formerly a vegetarian, she now can’t get enough meat. She prefers it raw. If you’ve seen the iconic scene in “Rosemary’s Baby” where Mia Farrow devours raw liver directly from the fridge, you will understand her friends’ concern. Their shock is compounded by Julie’s wretched smell and the fact that her teeth keep falling out. When hotel employees begin to go missing, the truth about Julie becomes impossible to ignore.
But Julie isn’t the only one with problems. These young women are all flawed in their own way, and these faults split open under the stress of Julie’s return. Even as they insist that they are “having fun,” “not mad,” “OK,” and that they will love one another forever, it is clear that they are clinging to an idea of friendship as twisted as anything Julie brings to the table. They love and hate one another. They want to grow up and go their separate ways, but cannot.
This conflict is what makes “The Return” so marvelous. The storytelling is quick, well plotted and engrossing. Harrison’s dialogue catches the characters’ quirks, insecurities and entitlement so well it sometimes feels like eavesdropping at Blue Bottle. Are their millennial anxieties annoying? A little. But you are lured into their lives — you begin to care about Elise’s arrested development, to understand Molly’s inability to love. You want to comfort Mae. You want Julie to be the same person she used to be. You wish you could stop the clock and replace what they’ve lost, because it is what we’ve all lost: time, with all its pleasure and pain, its many perfect moments and all the people who showed up and disappeared, never to return.
Elise is at her most perceptive when she says: “We run fast from the hard truths … but whatever is happening now with Julie, it’s going to catch up to us. It’s going to grab us by the ankles and bring us down, not let us go. It’s going to change us.”
Another group of friends is run down by other hard truths in Stephen Graham Jones’s gritty and gorgeous new novel, THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS (Saga, 310 pp., $26.99). Ricky, Lewis, Cass and Gabe, young men of the Blackfeet tribe, discover a herd of elk while hunting on forbidden land near their reservation. Lewis shoots a pregnant female and guts it to find its calf “still rounded like a bean in there, its head shape ducked down into its chest like it was going to look up at him.” The experience traumatizes Lewis and haunts him psychologically. Ten years later, the spirit of the slaughtered mother elk returns to take revenge.
By telling the story from their alternating points of view, Jones creates a panoramic view of what these four men have endured on and off the reservation — the struggles with addiction, racism and the pressure to carry the traditions of the Blackfeet tribe — but also their triumphs: what they imagine and dream, the games they play (basketball, mostly), the women they love, and how they cut a path through a world that is not designed for them.
Lewis, whose full name is Lewis A. Clark, a name his parents chose as a joke, has the most airtime in the novel, and it is through him that we feel the contradictions of being a “real Indian” and a flesh-and-blood human being. Small details about Lewis — his feelings about his wife, Peta, his thoughts about his job at the post office, his favorite books — give the novel texture and depth, and I was disappointed whenever Jones shifted to another point of view. And yet, it is through these kaleidoscopic turns that the ambition of Jones’s storytelling plays out. Through each of these characters we experience not only the horror of what it means to be human, but also the heartbreaking and terrible waste of seeing what we love destroyed by spirits of the past.
Ghosts of the past have also inspired one of the most rollicking, addictive novels I’ve read in years: THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB’S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES (Quirk, 404 pp., $22.99), by Grady Hendrix, a tale of housewives battling vampires that is sweetly painful, like hard candy that breaks a tooth. Hendrix’s mother was “a housewife who was in a book club,” and the novel is set in his childhood neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, S.C., making this a horror homage to the women who raised him. He admits that his mom and her friends “seemed like a bunch of lightweights” when he was a kid, but has come to see that they “took the hits so we could skate by obliviously.”
While Hendrix warns that his “story ends in blood,” it begins with housework: Patricia Campbell, 39 years old with two kids, frantically tries to stay on top of chores: “The sheets on the guest bed had to be changed … and Carter had to have his shirts ironed, and Korey wanted new soccer cleats … and Blue was only eating white food so she had to make rice every night for supper.” Patricia “realized she needed to get out of the house and meet new people the moment she leaned over at supper with Carter’s boss and tried to cut up his steak for him.”
At first, she doesn’t stray too far from her element. Kitty, Grace, Maryellen and Slick are all housewives like Patricia. They drive kids to the mall for TCBY, deal with encroaching laundry and worry about taking out the trash, but the book club changes them. Soon, they are reading true crime and pulpy murder mysteries, dreaming that “something exciting would happen.”
It does, and the result is as fun as an episode of “Desperate Housewives” in which Buffy moves into the neighborhood. Yet, while the book club will go to great lengths to vanquish vampires, there are limits. “We have to drive a stake through his heart?” Kitty asks and is relieved to find that the answer is no. She is a Southern woman, after all, and there are certain things that just aren’t done, not even in book club.
In “World War Z,” Max Brooks described a zombie apocalypse that wiped out humanity. Now, he is back with DEVOLUTION: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre (Del Rey, 286 pp., $28), another tale of creature invasion, this time trading the marauding dead for the Sasquatch.
Residents of Greenloop, a sustainable housing development inspired by Rousseau, are stranded after Mount Rainier erupts and “not only cut Greenloop off from rescue, but also left it vulnerable to a troop of hungry, apelike creatures.” Everybody died, but the Greenloop resident Kate Holland left a journal behind that gives a firsthand account of how the community perished at the — very large, one can assume — hands of Bigfoot.
Unfortunately, Kate is no writer. She begins the journal as a therapy assignment, and has trouble “getting used to the idea of writing stuff down.” The limitations of any novel are set by the narrator’s capacity to tell a story, and Kate’s limitations are vast. Her account is marred by self-doubt and an inability to give a full picture of what she is experiencing. For example, she hears a “howl, faint, distant. Not a wolf, or, at least, not like the wolves I’ve heard in movies,” then dismisses it without examination: “I can’t believe I freaked out for no reason, that I let imaginary monsters pollute my happy place.” She never gets the hang of full sentences, and peppers the pages with fragments, direct addresses to her therapist, insecurities about herself and her marriage, at one point explaining that the act of self-reflection is a challenge: “It’s just hard. Looking in.” Sometimes, reading Kate’s journal feels like puzzling over a series of text messages sent by a giddy teenager: The emotion is in high form even if the sentence structure isn’t.
To expand Kate’s vantage, an unnamed first-person narrator pads the account with background interviews from a forest ranger who investigated the scene of the massacre, and Kate’s brother, a sheriff. There are also bits of information from the American Geoscience Institute, clips from a transcript of public radio’s “Marketplace” and “literary references to Steve Morgan’s ‘The Sasquatch Companion.’” The result is a patchwork of voices chiming in and fading away, a chorus that cuts tension and deflates suspense.
The “saber-toothed cat, the dire wolf, the giant bulldog bear” didn’t survive human beings but, in Brooks’s novel, Bigfoot has, making him an evolutionary marvel. Much of the architecture of the novel is built to support this claim, but “Devolution” doesn’t capture the most important things: the wondrous and fearsome nature of such a creature, the miracle of his survival and the allure of Bigfoot for so many who believe he exists.
The Haunted Library series, which kicked off in January with “The Phantom of the Opera,” continues its publication of underappreciated horror classics with THE BEETLE (Poisoned Pen, 400 pp., paper, $14), a weird and gripping tale by Richard Marsh. Published the same year as “Dracula” (1897), “The Beetle” initially outsold Bram Stoker’s novel, only to sink into obscurity. Such is the justice of the literary long game.
“The Beetle” is something of a detective story, filled with revenge, false promises, sadistic villains and abducted young women. Marsh tells the story of Paul Lessingham, a handsome, well-respected parliamentarian whose success seems unstoppable, but who has inspired the hatred of a creature who claims to be part of an Egyptian cult of Isis. The Beetle is a strange beast, half male and half female, and is after Paul, we discover, for reasons related to a trip he took to Egypt some 20 years before. Clearly, scarabs have a long memory, because this one waited two decades and followed Paul all the way to London to settle the score.
In CATHERINE HOUSE (Custom House, 311 pp., $27.99), Elisabeth Thomas’s delicious literary Gothic debut, Ines Murillo, a self-described ghost, is accepted into the mysterious, exclusive Catherine House, “not just a school, but a cloister” of higher learning that “by some miracle of chemistry produced some of the world’s best minds: prizewinning authors, artists and inventors, diplomats, senators, Supreme Court justices.” Founded by “Transcendentalists instead of Puritans” in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, Catherine House is an endless puzzle-box of “baroque fantasy rooms”: a subterranean ballroom that doubles as an initiation chamber, a “three-story kaleidoscope” of a library, a music room with “brocade chairs, music history books, Chinese black lacquer screens and a grand piano polished to a high gloss.” Tuition is free, and food, clothing and toiletries are provided, as long as students leave everything behind and become part of the Catherine House “experiment.” It is so exclusive, and so romantic, that Ines just might be able to stop running from her dark past. When Ines discovers the truth about Catherine House, she must grapple with what she has long avoided: who she is and who she might become.
A stint at Catherine House might have done wonders for Iseult Wince, the heroine of Molly Pohlig’s Victorian-era psychological novel THE UNSUITABLE (Holt, 271 pp., $26.99). Iseult, a “drab and faded” woman on the verge of spinsterhood, is haunted by her mother, Beatrice, who died in childbirth. Now, Beatrice has burrowed herself deep into a scar on Iseult’s collarbone, left when “she was born and killed her mother.”
In snippets of dialogue woven throughout the novel, Beatrice harangues her child about everything from killing her to Iseult’s choice of suitors. Their bickering, and Beatrice’s run-on, boldface sentences, create a frenzied counterbalance to the deathly drone of Iseult’s daily life as it plays out in her large, lovely, airless Victorian home.
Pohlig’s descriptions of Iseult’s struggles are riveting, and will unnerve anyone who has battled an overbearing mother. The twisted intermixing of their lives often leaves one feeling as constrained as a lady laced into a bone corset. Indeed, their relationship is so close, so claustrophobic, that there were moments I needed to put the novel down, step to the window and get some air. The ending, both terrible and inevitable, was hard to stomach, but then again, the best horror is meant to leave you gutted, gasping for breath, straining to flee the dreadful voice echoing in your mind.
Danielle Trussoni’s most recent novel is “The Ancestor.”
The Essential Stephen King
By Gilbert Cruz
Gothic Horror Fiction, Old and New
Rakesses, Writers, Activists and Dukes, All of Them Hot
Does the state of the world have you desperate for a happy ending? Pick up a romance novel.
- AMERICAN SWEETHEARTS , by Adriana Herrera
- BEACH READ , by Emily Henry
- SAY YES TO THE DUKE , by Eloisa James
- CONVENTIONALLY YOURS , by Annabeth Albert
- WHEN YOU WISH UPON A ROGUE , by Anna Bennett
- THE RAKESS , by Scarlett Peckham
- DARING AND THE DUKE , by Sarah MacLean
By Jaime Green
You don’t need an excuse to read romance, though if one helps, I won’t object. Say you want something steamy in summer or cozy in winter, or the state of the world has you desperate for a literary happy ending. Say you want to explore traditional gender roles, or invert them, or find a way to happiness through them or despite. Say you want to go to a game convention, a tropical island, a magical garden or a sparkling lake, with a writer, an architect, a feminist activist, a duke or another duke. For any of those excuses, or none at all, here are seven new romances to sweep you away.
Maybe the most romantic being swept away is by someone you’ve known almost your whole life. AMERICAN SWEETHEARTS (Carina Press , 284 pp., paper, $ 8.99) , the fourth book in Adriana Herrera’s Dreamers series (though it works beautifully alone), opens about a year after the high school sweethearts Priscilla and Juan Pablo have broken up for what really seems to be the last time. They’ve had a rocky relationship ever since Priscilla enrolled in the police academy but Juan Pablo, instead of joining her there as planned, went to grad school instead. Now, in their early 30s, the last break seems to have stuck — until a friend’s wedding in the Dominican Republic brings them back together. But it’s not a tropical whirlwind, nor proximity, nor the ample pressure from family and friends, that gets Priscilla and Juan Pablo past everything keeping them apart. It’s working honestly and bravely through their issues. That’s swoon-worthy, in my opinion, but don’t worry if it sounds staid — this book is sweet and thoughtful, but delightfully filthy, too. (While Priscilla and Juan Pablo have to work hard on emotional honesty, they’ve been together long enough to be extremely comfortable with all of their predilections in bed.) Another swoon for the realist romantic: Juan Pablo has been in therapy for a year. We get to see Priscilla discover how he’s changed, and we see from his point of view the work that goes into changing yourself. He makes space for her, but doesn’t push her. Every moment in their love story feels beautifully earned.
Another gem this summer is Emily Henry’s BEACH READ (Jove, 384 pp., paper, $16 ), which elevates what could be a self-conscious premise into a tender, thoughtful and very fun book. The romance author January Andrews has fled to a small town on the shore of Lake Michigan to finish her long-overdue book. But she’s lost her faith in happy endings — and her ability to write them — in the wake of her father’s death and the subsequent revelation of his longtime affair. January discovers that her next-door neighbor is none other than Augustus Everett, her college creative writing rival, now a successful author himself. Instead of a meet-cute, Gus and January have a reintroduce-grumpy, but they soon decide that the solution to their mutual writer’s block is a bet. They’ll each try to write a book in the other’s genre — happy ending for Gus, Great American pessimism for January — and whoever sells their manuscript first wins.
To keep the book from devolving into 300-plus pages of two writers glancing at each other over their laptops, there’s a practicum component as well: Every weekend they’ll each organize a research outing. For Gus, these are grim inquiries into the demise of a local cult; for January, rom-com settings like line dancing and a trip to the fair. It sounds a lot like dating, and it is, with just the thinnest plausible deniability. It’s in that tension that Henry’s writing truly sings — the accidental touches that linger, the hand-caressing beneath an Olive Garden table. Very few writers can capture this kind of pretending it didn’t happen while desperately wishing it would happen again, and it’s not only convincing but infectious. But for all that fizzy chemistry, it may be telling that January wavers as to whether her books are romance or women’s fiction, as “Beach Read” also walks that blurry line. While the romance is central, it is somewhat in service to January’s personal healing and growth. But as January and Gus discover, pain doesn’t negate the hope for a happy ending, nor its pleasure, in real life or fiction.
Viola Astley was never particularly bold, but after a traumatizing encounter at her first ball — she interrupted a pair’s clandestine coupling and was yelled at by the male partner — she’s too anxious for almost any social gathering. Three years later, though, at the start of Eloisa James’s SAY YES TO THE DUKE: The Wildes of Lindow Castle (Avon, 386 pp., paper, $7.99), Viola’s stepsister helps her get over her fears just in time to come out to society. At her first ball of this new season, lurking again, she overhears Devin, the Duke of Wynter, reject his uncle’s suggestion that he marry her. That frees Viola to be her spirited self around Devin, sure he has no interest in marrying her, which of course leaves Devin enraptured. He decides to court her, and when they’re caught kissing — truly making out — in public, a marriage is rushed and love follows soon after. It really is the incessant making out that drives things: Viola thinks, “She wanted him profoundly, to the very center of her being. That, more than anything, meant she should marry him,” and nothing in the book seems to complicate that notion. There’s also a bizarre, and bizarrely long, scene in which Viola and Devin eavesdrop on another couple’s anguished heart-to-heart while having sex in a closet. That strangeness aside, this is a very good if somewhat perfunctory historical romance. The 10-year age gap between Viola and Devin isn’t all that unusual, for the time period or the genre, but her shyness reads as girlishness; while she and Devin have chemistry and banter and their love feels real, some readers may be sensitive to that disparity. Devin starts out as your standard coldhearted duke, so it’s lovely when he’s the first to fall in love. But that puts him in the position to drive the relationship, as if his gender and age and status weren’t enough, exacerbating the power imbalance. In a story that sidesteps high-stakes conflict, this tension has space to dominate the page.
High stakes don’t have to preclude fun, as proved by Annabeth Albert in the sweet and witty CONVENTIONALLY YOURS (Sourcebooks, 389 pp., paper, $14.99). Conrad and Alden are part of a crew that plays a Magic the Gathering-like card game called Odyssey on the vlog Gamer Grandpa. The team’s invited to a large Odyssey convention in Las Vegas, where they’ll play in a tournament for a chance to join the Odyssey pro league. Conrad and Alden both need this win desperately: Conrad’s father stopped paying for college, so he had to drop out and is working odd jobs to pay for his asthma medicine; Alden didn’t get into med school for the second consecutive year, and is being pressured by his moms to pick a new career path. (Both men are in their early 20s, but they read young, giving this a young adult — or new adult — crossover feel.) After the rest of the Gamer Grandpa crew gets deus-ex-machina’d off the road trip to Vegas, Conrad and Alden find themselves driving cross-country alone together, and their prickly rivalry slowly falls away to reveal what’s long been simmering underneath. That burgeoning attraction and connection is lovely and believable, coming in fits and flourishes that catch Conrad and Alden off guard. Once the plot setup is out of the way, the book becomes beautifully straightforward: two young men, alone together, discovering their feelings for each other. Albert makes a deeper and more sensitive investigation into what love is than most romances — or, if not an investigation, then an argument: It’s wanting to care for someone, being cared for by them, and also a lot, a lot, a lot of making out.
At the start of Anna Bennett’s WHEN YOU WISH UPON A ROGUE (St. Martin’s, 336 pp., paper, $7.99), Sophie Kendall is weeks from making official her engagement to the perfectly nice lord who can save her family from financial ruin. She’s steeled herself to the responsibility, though it means ending her time as the leader of the Debutante Underground, a secret society of women from all walks of life who gather weekly to discuss matters of the heart. But when Sophie sneaks into an abandoned shop one night to assess it for a new Underground meeting space, she discovers the building’s owner loitering there. Reese, the Earl of Warshire, has been sleepless and miserable since his older brother’s death called him back to England from war, forcing him to abandon his men for a title he never wanted. In the empty shop, Sophie’s practicality and sensitivity shine through when — after breaking and entering — she brews valerian root tea to help Reese fall asleep. He’s so amazed that he tracks Sophie down and begs her to visit him once a week so he can sleep, because tea alone isn’t doing the trick. Her presence is indeed soothing, but they soon discover they’d rather talk than sleep, and maybe do other things rather than talk. Refreshingly, they don’t fret over what they’re feeling, instead treating their own hearts and each other with an honesty that elevates this book into something special. Reese’s garden, where he and Sophie pass several dark summer nights, serves as a bit of synecdoche for the whole book: an almost magically beguiling setting for two people to have the simple bravery to fall in love.
Everything about Scarlett Peckham’s THE RAKESS (Avon , 400 pp., paper, $7.99) — from the title to the exquisite old-school cover with its gender-swapped clinch — makes its intent clear: to ask, “What if there were such a thing as a rakess?” It can’t be as simple as choosing to have sex, which would mark a woman as ruined. A rakess needs to go several steps further, liberating herself in action and mind. Because as Peckham herself acknowledges in her introductory note, “unlike the rake, with his unrepentant wickedness and zest for erotic excess, the ruined woman is rarely living a life of pleasure.” Yet the same, it seems, can be said for a rakess. At least this one.
Our rakess, Seraphina Arden, is a writer and agitator for women’s liberties. Having returned to her family’s Cornwall estate to write her memoirs — to be published to gin up funds and enthusiasms for her efforts — she meets Adam Anderson, an architect and single father who is working on a project next door. As they fall in love they are dogged by their pasts and presents: As a young woman, Sera was seduced by a neighbor, who abandoned her when she became pregnant; she lost the baby and he married someone else. Adam lost his wife in childbirth and blames himself for their inability to heed the doctor’s advice that she not become pregnant. Now, in order to ensure the security of his business and his family, he needs to ingratiate himself with the nobility Seraphina’s writing so inflames.
On the one hand it’s correct that Sera’s lurid life should also be unsatisfying — like all romance rakes, she needs to fall in love to find true happiness, to open not only her bed but her heart. But because of the world she lives in, rakess-ishness loses even its veneer of fun. Sera’s shamelessness is a thin performance, and she is cruelly reviled by her community in a way no rake ever is. She may be a rakess, but she’s still ruined, too. Peckham does not shy away from this pain. Indeed she captures it so vividly that Sera’s suffering threatens to overwhelm the enjoyment of romance. (While Peckham’s previous series skewed gothically dark, it had a wickedness that’s absent here.) This is a compelling, insightful, sensitive novel, but in so deeply exploring romance tropes, Peckham almost writes herself outside of them.
A subtler inversion of romance tropes is found in Sarah MacLean’s DARING AND THE DUKE (Avon, 371 pp., paper, $7.99), the conclusion of her Bareknuckle Bastards series. MacLean set herself a mighty challenge in choosing for her hero the man who has been the series’s villain so far. The heroes of the first two books in the series — the titular bastards — have been criminals in name and nonviolent deeds, but they are exceedingly good-hearted; on the other hand, Ewan, the Duke of Marwick, mad with grief and rage at the thought that his childhood love, Grace, has died, has been an agent of terror. Yet MacLean works magic, crafting a magnificent romance that’s as satisfying as it is subversive.
It would have been easy to make this the story of a damaged man trying to become worthy of the woman he loves or, even worse, of the woman he loves trying to heal him. But relatively early on, MacLean elides a year in which Ewan leaves London and sets about getting himself right. It’s a convenient literary device — he returns not only better fed and better rested but with a restored mental balance. And though that recovery can be chalked up to relief that Grace is alive, his motivation for villainy negated, it also makes the rest of the novel vastly more interesting. Ewan doesn’t need Grace to heal his heart — he takes care of his own business. He returns knowing he loves Grace and ready to earn her forgiveness. That gives over the rest of the book to Grace’s emotional journey, and in that space, MacLean crafts a masterpiece. Grace, proprietress of an exclusive ladies’ club and herself the third Bareknuckle Bastard, has many elements common to a romance hero’s journey: a closed-off heart, protective instincts, the tendency to think everyone deserves love but herself. But just as she appropriates articles of male dress that suit her, pairing gold-threaded corsets with high boots and pants, she’s hardly in literary drag.
She’s a vibrant beating heart, full of longing, pain and so much hope. MacLean has always made the tropes of romance feel fresh and specific by investing them with an abundance of emotional insight and wit. But here, in shifting the tropes of romance off their axes by just a few degrees, she has accessed something new. Rather than breaking the boundaries of the genre, she opens the genre up, with the same sense of magical discovery as those dreams where you find a new room in your home. The result is a romance that feels at once classical and sui generis, steeped in the history of the genre but utterly original.
Jaime Green is the Book Review’s romance columnist. Her first book, about the science and science fiction of life beyond Earth, is forthcoming.
50 States, 50 Love Stories
By Tina Jordan and Elisabeth Egan
Beverly Jenkins Really Needs to Buy More Bookcases
When Armchair Travel Is Your Only Option
With these books, you can wander through the cities of the Silk Road, visit a bushmeat market in Congo and discover tiny museums in Iceland.
- LEAVE ONLY FOOTPRINTS , by Conor Knighton
- THE MUSEUM OF WHALES YOU WILL NEVER SEE , by A. Kendra Greene
- SOVIETISTAN , by Erika Fatland
- FEASTING WILD , by Gina Rae La Cerva
By Sebastian Modak
Nothing tests the transportive abilities of a good travel book like an unprecedented global shutdown. As the coronavirus swept across the world, planes were grounded, cruise ships were docked, hotel rooms collected dust and phone systems were jammed with millions of people trying to cancel their spring and summer trips. Suddenly, if we wanted to escape the confines of our neighborhood, we had only our memories of trips past and our daydreams of trips future to depend on. But where those reach their limits, books take over. We have always relied on a good story to take us even just a little bit outside our own reality, an escapism we crave now more than ever.
The “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent Conor Knighton was in search of his own escape when he conceived of LEAVE ONLY FOOTPRINTS: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park (Crown, 323 pp., $28). After his fiancée unexpectedly called off their engagement, Knighton found himself unsure of how to process his heartbreak. Timing offered some inspiration. With 2016, the centennial of the National Park Service, fast approaching, Knighton proposed an idea to his bosses at CBS: a series that would have him visiting every one of the 59 national parks (three more have been added since 2016) over the course of the centennial year. Network executives met him halfway, funding a trip to some of them, with Knighton filling in the gaps. He had found his purpose, at least for a year.
The result is less a survey of every national park — most get only a handful of pages — than a chronicle of one upbeat, observant man’s emotional and physical journey through some of the most beautiful places in one very large country. Rather than doing a play-by-play, Knighton chooses to group parks by theme, some literal (“Ice,” “Mountains,” “Canyons”) and others more esoteric (“God,” “Love,” “Mystery”). This means places as disparate as Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, where one of the “recommended hikes” is called the “I-80 Overlook,” and Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska (“no roads, no trails, and certainly no visitor center”) exist side by side in a chapter titled “Food.” In Cuyahoga, it is a visit to a farm-to-table restaurant; in Alaska, it’s a caribou hunt.
In fact, it is Knighton’s curation — his ability to draw out unexpected snapshots from places as well known and completely formed in our national imagination as Yosemite and Yellowstone — that makes his journey so engaging. At the Grand Canyon, he chooses to spend far more time on the “parkitecture” of the long underrecognized Mary Colter; at Petrified Forest National Park, he tells of the “conscience pile,” where all the petrified wood stolen and later returned by guilt-ridden visitors is collected; in American Samoa, the natural beauty takes a back seat to an examination of Samoans’ status as Americans without citizenship at birth. Between the moments of revelation, introspection and awe, Knighton imbues his reflections with emotional vulnerability and self-deprecating, shamelessly nerdy humor. Of the “Old Man,” a mysterious log that has floated in a vertical position around Crater Lake for over a hundred years, he writes, “He’s a reminder that sometimes, it’s fun … to be stumped.” Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your tolerance for dad jokes, it is not the only “stump” pun that he makes.
What moves Knighton most about the national parks is their very existence — that we have carved out huge spaces of land where nature is allowed to just be.
Iceland, a short flight away, is another place that attracts lovers of the outdoors. But Iceland’s Great Indoors is the topic of A. Kendra Greene’s THE MUSEUM OF WHALES YOU WILL NEVER SEE: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums (Penguin, 252 pp., $22), a lyrical and offbeat tribute to the quirkiness of a tiny island nation where the act of collecting has become an art in itself.
With a population of around 350,000 people, Iceland is home to more than 265 museums. Greene, a Dallas-based writer who has worked at several museums around the United States, is drawn by Iceland’s culture and history, but most of all by what its museums can tell us about that culture and history. “I have never known a place where the boundaries between private collection and public museum are so profoundly permeable, so permissive, so easily transgressed and so transparent as if almost not to exist,” she writes.
She travels all across the country, often far off the well-trodden tourist path, to find museums that are noteworthy not only for what they contain but for how they came to be: places like Petra’s Stone Collection , a house and garden packed full of unlabeled geological curiosities in a town of just 200 people. What started as one woman’s tendency to bring home rocks that would catch her eye on daily walks in the hills grew over time to what it is today, the only stopping point on tours of the eastern fjords where Petra’s descendants offer tea to visitors. Greene is adept at extrapolating meaning from oddities and a sense of wonder from the family histories contained within the walls of small museums. Of Petra’s collection, she writes, “We kneel here at this museum of her commitment, at its altar of daily ritual, awed at its yield, even as we suspect in our secret hearts that we, too, could have done it.”
Museums aren’t for everyone, but these are not your run-of-the-mill natural history or contemporary art museums. In search of the uniquely Icelandic, Greene visits the Icelandic Phallological Museum , “probably the only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammal found in a single country,” and delights in the inclusion of “probably” in its description. She goes to the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, where certain specimens are easy to display — the invisible boy, for instance — while others are more complicated. There are some museums experienced only in passing glimpses or not at all: Does the rumored whale museum tucked behind a gas station somewhere actually exist?
Along the way, the stories of collectors and curators serve as jumping-off points to explore wide arcs of Iceland’s history; how the boom-and-bust cycles of its economy built and broke its cultural institutions; how the relatively recent spike in tourism could be a partial explanation as to why a vast majority of those 265 museums were established only in the past 20 years. But these aren’t places that came to be only with tourism dollars in mind: What Greene’s book achieves most of all is revealing the passions and the obsessions of the people behind the museums we so love to visit.
For an introduction to a deeply misunderstood part of the world, try SOVIETISTAN: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan (Pegasus, illustrated, 477 pp., $28.95), by the Norwegian social anthropologist and writer Erika Fatland. The nations are often grouped together as “ the Stans ,” a narrow vision of post-Soviet dysfunction, but Fatland travels across the five countries, largely over land, in part to prove otherwise. Turkmenistan is a dictatorship rivaled in its severity and bizarreness by only North Korea, while Kyrgyzstan is a partly open democracy (“It is not so much the freedom that is noticeable,” Fatland writes, “rather, the absence of fear”). Kazakhstan is relatively wealthy; Tajikistan is “poor as a church mouse,” and more than 90 percent of its land is covered in impassable mountains. Uzbekistan, when Fatland traveled through it, was still under the grip of Islam Karimov, a dictator who died in 2016, giving way to a host of liberalizing reforms — a development Fatland is able to address only in an afterword, so rapidly is this part of the world, part of the Soviet Union until 1991, changing.
Throughout her journey, Fatland spends a large amount of time exploring that Soviet history and how it has led to the present: how decades of authoritarianism dovetailed the reign of Turkmenistan’s first dictator, who banned beards and renamed the months of the year after himself and his family members, among other moves taken straight out of the megalomaniac playbook. She travels to the Aral Sea, which dried up after Soviet irrigation canals diverted water away from it in an attempt to convert huge swaths of Kazakh and Uzbek land into cotton fields. She visits former nuclear testing grounds. Much of what she sees, searching for these vestiges of Soviet life, is bleak, even as people she meets along the way speak of that time of stability as the good old days.
But the complexity and beauty of this region are better represented when she goes further back in time, to the Uzbek cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, immaculately restored hubs of the Silk Road , and to the sand-colored ruins of Merv in Turkmenistan. From the stories she hears along the way, it is sometimes hard to tell what is history and what is legend. As Fatland puts it, “The past speaks to us in half-finished sentences, and not always in a language we understand.”
Much to the reader’s benefit, Russian is one of eight languages that Fatland speaks. This gives Fatland a level of access most outsiders would never have. Tour guides whisper their frustration about oppressive governments to her. She drinks vodka and eats caviar with strangers on a train ride through Kazakhstan. She joins in on wedding celebrations in rural Tajikistan and can be a participant instead of just a spectator. She can understand the woman she is walking with in the mountains, after the wedding, when she tells her to look up at the sky. “I have never seen so many stars as I did there, on the roof of the world,” Fatland writes.
We travel to connect with nature, we travel to learn, but we also travel to eat. Gina Rae La Cerva, a geographer and environmental anthropologist, takes it a step further in FEASTING WILD: In Search of the Last Untamed Food (Greystone, 317 pp., $26.95), in which she delves into not only what we eat around the world, but what we once ate and what we have lost since then. Her research stems from the fact that for 99 percent of our history on this planet, we hunted and gathered for sustenance. To understand what happened in that 1 percent of time — and what our future looks like — La Cerva seeks out “wild food” on a trip around the world that takes her to the bushmeat markets of the Democratic Republic of Congo, moose hunting grounds of Sweden and jungles of Borneo, among other places.
It is fitting, though, that she begins her journey in Copenhagen, where she searches for wild onions in a cemetery with a group of foragers and eats at the famous Noma , where the chef René Redzepi has made foraging cool again. She leaves impressed but with a healthy dose of skepticism around the restaurant’s raison d’être: “To eat ants outside of periods of extreme scarcity, without the motivation of an empty belly, holds within it the paradox at the center of Noma’s dishes — the fetishization of need,” she writes.
Besides a conviction that we are missing something by having neglected our wilderness for nutrients for so long, it is one of the few strong stances she takes in a journey where she is often admirably nonjudgmental. At a bushmeat market on the banks of the Congo River, she is unfazed by the slaughtered monkeys and wild pigs, bound for the tables of the wealthy in Kinshasa and Paris. Instead she contemplates bigger questions, exploring our contemporary understanding of poaching as an evolution of rules imposed by medieval barons in European forests. “If a white man kills a wild animal and eats it, we call it hunting game,” she writes. “If a black man kills a wild animal and eats it, we call it bushmeat poaching.”
La Cerva is at her best during her long, meandering diversions. A lobster bake on an island in Maine leads to a discourse on how the harvesting of wild turtles, which followed the same currents as the ships crossing the Atlantic, fueled the trans-Atlantic slave trade. A day spent exploring the abandoned Winchester gun factory in New Haven, Conn., leads to a detailed history of fowl hunting in the United States and factual gems like how, in the mid-19th century, Delmonico’s in New York listed some 346 entrees, including 10 kinds of wild duck.
Sometimes, though, the best travel moments happen when plans fall apart, and the same is true for La Cerva. Frustrated on a quest to see the Borneo caves where wild swiftlets build their nests — a delicacy throughout Asia — La Cerva finds herself at a homestay in the middle of a dense jungle. Far from any swiftlet, she enjoys a home-cooked meal of ginger flowers in scrambled eggs and wild boar spareribs. “For me, the wild banquet laid before us is an extraordinary feast,” she writes. “For everyone else, it is simply dinner.”
Sebastian Modak, a freelance writer and multimedia journalist, was the 2019 52 Places Traveler. Before being selected to report on the annual New York Times list, he worked at Condé Nast Traveler as an editor and staff writer.
52 Books for 52 Places
By Concepción de León
By The New York Times
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Illustrations by Igor Bastidas. Art direction by Matthew Dorfman. Photo research by Erica Ackerberg and James Pomerantz. Designed and produced by Aliza Aufrichtig and Gray Beltran.
An earlier version of this article misstated the title of a novel by Grady Hendrix. It is “The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires” (not “Killing Vampires”).
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to a crime committed by William Edward Hickman. Hickman kidnapped (and later killed) Marion Parker; he did not also kidnap her twin sister, Marjorie.