An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.
In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.
Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.
A challenging memoir about black-white relations, income inequality, mother-son dynamics, Mississippi byways, lack of personal self-control, education from kindergarten through graduate school, and so much more.
Laymon (English and Creative Writing/Univ. of Mississippi; How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, 2013, etc.) skillfully couches his provocative subject matter in language that is pyrotechnic and unmistakably his own. He also uses an intriguing narrative form, directly addressing his divorced mother, a poverty-stricken single woman who became a political science professor at Jackson State University. As an obese black youngster, the author had to learn to absorb cruelty not only because of his size, but also because of his dark skin. The relentlessness of his mother’s love—she expected academic and behavioral perfection and employed corporal punishment with a belt—shaped Laymon’s character in ways both obvious and subtle. One of the main elements of the memoir is his resentment at white privilege and his techniques to counter it. “Every time you said my particular brand of hardheadedness and white Mississippian’s brutal desire for black suffering were recipes for an early death, institutionalization, or incarceration, I knew you were right,” writes the author. Of all the secondary themes, the impact of addiction—food, gambling, and drug use, but especially food—ranks next. Laymon hated himself for topping 300 pounds as a teenager. Then he got fanatical with exercise and near starvation, dropping down to 170—followed by a relapse of sorts as he began to approach 300 again. Far more than just the physical aspect, the weight he carries also derives from the burdens placed on him by a racist society, by his mother and his loving grandmother, and even by himself. At times, the author examines his complicated romantic and sexual relationships, and he also delves insightfully into politics, literature, feminism, and injustice, among other topics.
A dynamic memoir that is unsettling in all the best ways.
A young graphic artist inspires worldwide hysteria when she accidentally makes first contact with an alien.
Famous multimedia wunderkind Green is brother to that John Green, so no pressure or anything on his debut novel. Luckily, he applies wit, affection, and cultural intelligence to a comic sci-fi novel suitable for adults and mature teens. It’s endearing how fully he occupies his narrator, a 20-something bi artist named April May who is wasting her youth slaving at a Manhattan startup. On her way home late one night, April encounters an armored humanoid figure, which turns out to be alien in nature—“And I don’t mean alien like ‘weird,’" she says. She phones her videographer friend Andy Skampt, who posts on YouTube a funny introduction to the robot she dubs Carl. April’s life is turned upside down when the video goes massively viral and immovable Carls appear in cities around the world. After they discover a complex riddle involving the Queen song “Don’t Stop Me Now,” the mystery becomes a quest for April; Andy; April’s roommate/kind-of-sort-of girlfriend, Maya; a scientist named Miranda; and April’s new assistant, Robin, to figure out what the Carls are doing here. “None of us older than twenty-five years old, cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard, planning our press strategy for the announcement of First Contact with a space alien,” says April. April and her friends are amiable goofballs and drawn genuinely for their age and time. Meanwhile, the story bobs along on adolescent humor and otherworldly phenomena seeded with very real threats, not least among them a professional hater named Peter Petrawicki and his feral followers. Green is clearly interested in how social media moves the needle on our culture, and he uses April’s fame, choices, and moral quandaries to reflect on the rending of social fabric. Fortunately, this entertaining ride isn’t over yet, as a cliffhanger ending makes clear.
A fun, contemporary adventure that cares about who we are as humans, especially when faced with remarkable events.
In this resounding polemic against political, cultural, and personal injustices in America, Traister (All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, 2016, etc.) studies women’s anger as a tool for change.
Citing fury as a driving force of her journalism career, the author, a writer at large for New York magazine and contributing editor at Elle, set out to write this book as a means to convey her own rage in response to innumerable inequities. She explores how feminist outrage has been suppressed, discouraged, and deemed unattractive and crazy. With articulate vitriol backed by in-depth research, Traister validates American women’s anger as the heart of social progress and attributes its widespread denigration to the “correct understanding of those in power that in the fury of women lies the power to change the world.” Some of the major topics of these clear, blistering pages include Donald Trump and the 2016 presidential election, ongoing sexual assault scandals and the #MeToo movement, systemic racism, and the public censure of women. The author weaves together discussions of the long-silenced accounts from women who were molested by powerful men with the deafening calls, by women across the country, for men who’ve abused their authority to be held accountable. She draws from a staggering number of sources, ranging from dozens of newspaper articles to Abigail Adams’ 1776 warning to her own husband to pay attention to women. Traister has meticulously culled smart, timely, surprising quotations from women as well as men. The combined strength of these many individual voices and stories gives the book tremendous gravity. It is neither a witch hunt nor a call for vendettas against men. Rather, the author provides a reflective, even revolutionary reminder that women's collective capacity to catalyze change outweighs individuals' fear of backlash or turning a blind eye to ongoing subjugation. The goal is not anger for its own sake but to access, acknowledge, express, and use it to rebuild structures.
A gripping call to action that portends greater liberty and justness for all.
A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.
“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.
Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.
The author of A God in Ruins (2015) and Life After Life (2013) revisits the Second World War.
Juliet Armstrong is 18 years old and all alone in the world when she’s recruited by MI5. Her job is transcribing meetings of British citizens sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Soon, she’s pulled even deeper into the world of espionage, a world she will ultimately discover is hard to escape—even after she leaves the intelligence service to produce radio programs for the BBC. Atkinson is a careful author, and the title she’s chosen for this novel is more than a description of Juliet’s contribution to the war effort. The concept of writing over or across—meanings available from the Latin roots that make up the word “transcribe”—runs through the book. For example, the British Fascists who think they’re passing secrets to the Third Reich are actually giving them to an English spy; their crimes are both deadly serious and parodic. At the BBC, Juliet creates programming about the past for children, versions of history that rely more on nostalgia than fact. She knows she's creating an idea of England, a scrim to hang over bombed-out buildings and dead bodies. Just as Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels borrow from mystery but exist in a category apart from that genre, her latest is a sort of demystified thriller. There is intrigue. There are surprises. But the unknowns aren’t always what we think they are. The deepest pleasure here, though, is the author’s language. As ever, Atkinson is sharp, precise, and funny. She might be the best Anglophone author working when it comes to adverbs. Consider this exchange: “Trude suddenly declared vehemently, ‘Let’s hope the Germans bomb us the way they bombed Rotterdam.’ ‘Goodness, why?’ Mrs Scaife asked, rather taken aback by the savagery of this outburst. ‘Because then the cowards in government will capitulate and make peace with the Third Reich.’ ‘Do have a scone,’ Mrs Scaife said appeasingly.”
Another beautifully crafted book from an author of great intelligence and empathy.
A beloved actor attempts to assemble her fragmented past.
In her debut memoir, Field (b. 1946) takes to the page to explore her early life and storied acting career; she also pens an extended love letter to her mother, who died in 2011, on the author’s 65th birthday. Described by the author as “drop-your-jaw beautiful,” Margaret Morlan was discovered by a Paramount talent scout while sitting in a Pasadena Playhouse audience and instantly got a career at age 23. Affectionately called “Baa” by Field, Morlan never achieved anywhere near her eldest daughter’s screen credits, but she played a central role throughout Field’s life as both a peerless champion of and “backup generator” to her daughter’s burgeoning talents. Baa was also a complicated source of great psychological trauma, as she failed to protect her daughter from the sexual advances of her stepfather, stuntman Jock Mahoney. While the memoir details the rapid progression of Field’s childhood interest in acting to on-screen success in TV (from Gidget and The Flying Nun to winning the Emmy for Sybil in 1977) and film (for Norma Rae, she won “every award for best actress that existed in the United States”), Field’s narrative of her professional and personal achievements may be best viewed through the lens of her fraught relationship with Baa. “My cherished mother had known…something,” she writes. “What exactly that was, I didn’t want to hear, because even at that time, when I was middle-aged, I couldn’t bear the idea that she hadn’t run to my side….I had accepted the idea that I was broken in an effort to keep my mother whole.” Through acting, Field found a way to constitute herself: “By standing in Norma’s shoes, I felt my own feet. If I could play her, I could be me.”
Brimming with open introspection, engaging anecdotes, and gorgeous photographs, Field’s moving account sheds light on how playing larger-than-life figures has enabled her to keep her feet on the ground.
In an oral history that reads like playful conversation, two popular TV stars discuss how they came together and stayed together.
If the Captain & Tennille talked a little naughtier in public, their “Love Will Keep Us Together” could serve as a theme song for this extended ode to marital harmony. The book is nonchronological, proceeding in chapters focusing on topics including religion, sex (and previous relationships), art, awards ceremonies, and fame in general. When they met in 2000 while rehearsing for a play, Mullally was already successful with Will & Grace, while Offerman (Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop, 2016, etc.) was as much a carpenter as an actor. It wasn’t love at first sight, at least on her end, but, he says, “we recognized a kindred spirit in our performance styles, if you will. And senses of humor.” She had been married and had rushed into other relationships that didn’t work out, while he had come from a large, loving Midwestern family and had those values instilled in him. “You’re not the kind of guy who had a million women and was a dog,” she tells him. “I always hated those kind of guys.” The authors’ banter occasionally edges toward pillow talk, and they come across like perennial honeymooners. The age difference (she’s nearly 12 years older) was never an issue, and it doesn’t appear that he was bothered by her success, though his breakthrough role in Parks and Recreation has leveled the playing field. If there is a secret to their love, it is perhaps best distilled in Mullally’s solo chapter of beauty tips, where she advises, “just try to be the best version of what you are naturally.” They amuse themselves, Offerman explains, by “doing jigsaw puzzles while simultaneously listening to audiobooks.”
Readers are likely to enjoy the authors’ company almost as much as they seem to enjoy each other’s.
Fuller’s (Swimming Lessons, 2017, etc.) latest novel is seductive on the outside, but hidden within is a sinister story that considers the terrifying lengths people will go to escape their pasts.
It’s the summer of 1969, and for the first time in 39 years, Frances Jellico is free of any routine. One month ago, she buried her mother, the callous woman she’d been bound to since birth. When she’s commissioned to survey and write a report on the garden architecture of Lyntons, an old English country house outside London, Frances leaves her home, and turbulent past, to settle into the mansion’s furnished attic for the summer. From the moment she meets Cara and Peter, the attractive couple staying in the rooms below hers, Frances is besotted. Peter, she learns, has been hired to assess the foundation and state of the house, which, after years of neglect following the war, is in poor condition. Frances becomes enraptured by the carefree, unbridled passion Peter and Cara seamlessly exude. All her life, she has yearned for that sense of freedom—to be unburdened of her loneliness, her insecurities, her endless guilt. After discovering a peephole in her bathroom floor, Frances takes to watching their intimate lives play out from above. Equally intrigued by Frances, the couple invites her into their lives, eager to share their desires and secrets with a captive audience. The three spend their languid days indulging in decadent meals, drinking, sunbathing, and reveling in the frivolity of one another’s company. But as Fuller’s novel progresses, Frances’ friendship with the couple turns claustrophobic. The stories Cara and Peter have fed Frances slowly begin to unfurl, revealing a labyrinth of deceptions that Frances finds herself in the middle of. When strange things begin to happen throughout the house, Frances realizes she knows nothing about Cara and Peter. Much like Lyntons, they’re “beautiful on the surface, but look a little closer and everything is decaying, rotting, falling apart.” In the vein of Shirley Jackson’s bone-chilling The Haunting of Hill House, Fuller’s disturbing novel will entrap readers in its twisty narrative, leaving them to reckon with what is real and what is unreal.
Told she has six months to live, an Iranian refugee living in Sweden rages against her inevitable decline—and wrestles with the choices of her past—in Hashemzadeh Bonde’s spare and devastating novel, her first to be published in the U.S.
At 50, Nahid is unceremoniously diagnosed with terminal cancer. She knows death: A former Marxist revolutionary who fled Iran for Sweden, she has seen it. Now that it is upon her, she ought to be prepared. “I’ve always carried my death with me,” she announces. “Our time was always borrowed. We weren’t supposed to be alive. We should have died in the revolution.” But the reality of the diagnosis terrifies her. “What do you do when they tell you you’re dying?” she wonders, caustically. What follows is less a plot than a reckoning: As her health declines, she recalls her childhood in Iran, the early excitement of the revolution followed by the brutality of the violence. She reflects back on her marriage and her early years in Sweden, poisoned by the pain she and her husband shared. And in the present, she considers her daughter, Aram, raised in so-called freedom, now an adult with a doting Swedish boyfriend. She loves Aram more than anyone, but her anger makes her cruel. “You have no mother,” she tells Aram, shortly after diagnosis. “You have nobody. You’re an orphan.” Nahid is capable of betrayal; she learned that during the revolution. Now that she is dying, she debates the value of her choices: “I wonder now what’s worth more,” she says. “Freedom and democracy. Or people who love you. People who will take care of your children when you die.” Translated—gorgeously and simply—by Wessel, Nahid's sentences are short and thrillingly brutal, and the result is exhilarating. Hashemzadeh Bonde, unafraid of ugliness and seemingly unconcerned with likability, has produced a startling meditation on death, national identity, and motherhood.
Always arresting, never sentimental; gut-wrenching, though not without hope.