Nantucket, not Woodstock, is the main attraction in Hilderbrand’s (Winter in Paradise, 2018, etc.) bittersweet nostalgia piece about the summer of 1969.
As is typical with Hilderbrand’s fiction, several members of a family have their says. Here, that family is the “stitched together” Foley-Levin clan, ruled over by the appropriately named matriarch, Exalta, aka Nonny, mother of Kate Levin. Exalta’s Nantucket house, All’s Fair, also appropriately named, is the main setting. Kate’s three older children, Blair, 24, Kirby, 20, and Tiger, 19, are products of her first marriage, to Wilder Foley, a war veteran, who shot himself. Second husband David Levin is the father of Jessie, who’s just turned 13. Tiger has been drafted and sends dispatches to Jessie from Vietnam. Kirby has been arrested twice while protesting the war in Boston. (Don’t tell Nonny!) Blair is married and pregnant; her MIT astrophysicist husband, Angus, is depressive, controlling, and deceitful—the unmelodramatic way Angus’ faults sneak up on both Blair and the reader is only one example of Hilderbrand’s firm grasp on real life. Many plot elements are specific to the year. Kirby is further rebelling by forgoing Nantucket for rival island Martha’s Vineyard—and a hotel job close to Chappaquiddick. Angus will be working at Mission Control for the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Kirby has difficult romantic encounters, first with her arresting officer, then with a black Harvard student whose mother has another reason, besides Kirby’s whiteness, to distrust her. Pick, grandson of Exalta’s caretaker, is planning to search for his hippie mother at Woodstock. Other complications seem very up-to-date: a country club tennis coach is a predator and pedophile. Anti-Semitism lurks beneath the club’s genteel veneer. Kate’s drinking has accelerated since Tiger’s deployment overseas. Exalta’s toughness is seemingly untempered by grandmotherly love. As always, Hilderbrand’s characters are utterly convincing and immediately draw us into their problems, from petty to grave. Sometimes, her densely packed tales seem to unravel toward the end. This is not one of those times.
To use the parlance of the period, a highly relevant retrospective.
An exploration of the little-visited realms of the Earth, from deep caves to bunkers, trenches to Bronze Age burial chambers, courtesy of an accomplished Virgil.
Macfarlane (The Lost Words, 2018, etc.), who has pretty well revived single-handedly the fine British tradition of literary natural history writing, can usually be found atop mountains. In his latest, he heads in the opposite direction, probing the depths of the Earth to find the places in which humans have invested considerable imaginative attention yet fear to tread. He opens with a cave network discovered in China’s Chongqing province only a few years ago that “was found to possess its own weather system,” with layers of dank cold mist that never see sunlight. From there, the author moves on to other places that require us to “go low,” into places that humans usually venture only to hide things—treasure, sacred texts, bodies. Now that many such places are making themselves known, exposed during construction excavations and unveiled by melting permafrost, “things that should have stayed buried are rising up unbidden”—treasure sometimes, more often just bodies. All of this is occasion for Macfarlane, a gifted storyteller and poetic writer, to ponder what historians have called “deep time,” the time that is measured in geological rather than human terms and against which the existence of our kind is but a blip. Even places well known or celebrated in antiquity—from the underworld of The Epic of Gilgamesh to the Iron Age mines of the Mendip Hills of southwestern England—are recent points on the map of that ancient landscape. As he moves from continent to continent, Macfarlane instructs us on how to see those places, laced with secrets and mysteries (“all taxonomies crumble, but fungi leave many of our fundamental categories in ruin”). Wherever he travels, he enhances our sense of wonder‚ which, after all, is the whole point of storytelling.
A treasure all its own. Anyone who cares to ponder the world beneath our feet will find this to be an essential text.
Lee Koe’s (Ministry of Moral Panic, 2013) decade- and continent-spanning novel follows the intersecting lives and careers of three 20th-century film greats.
At the Berlin Press Ball 1928, three young women meet: Anna May Wong, an up-and-coming Chinese-American actress in Hollywood; Marlene Dietrich, a loudmouthed German trying to break into the business; and Leni Riefenstahl, a striving director just embarking on a career making Nazi propaganda films. From there the narration branches out, in alternating, braided sections, to trace the arcs of their lives. An octogenarian Marlene, bedridden in a Paris apartment, receives flirtatious phone calls from a mysterious young man who recites Rilke to her every Sunday, and she’s cared for by a Chinese maid named Bébé, who has fled her rural village in Taishan and a prostitution ring in Marseilles. Anna May wrestles with her romantic feelings for Marlene after a brief post–Press Ball tryst as they co-star in Shanghai Express, and she battles against regular takedowns in the Chinese press, her laundry-owning parents’ disapproval of her career, and Hollywood’s—and the world’s—limited roles and expectations for a Chinese-American woman. “And where are you from? Los Angeles, Anna May said. Before that? Anna May shook her head, repeated herself: Los Angeles. But where were you born? Los Angeles, she said.” Leni Riefenstahl shoots her film Tiefland in the Bavarian Alps, using Roma and Sinti extras from a concentration camp while navigating her relationships with Hitler and Goebbels, and eventually faces public vitriol and rape threats for those Nazi ties. For a novel so dense with historical fact and larger-than-life celebrity cameos (everyone from John F. Kennedy to Walter Benjamin to David Bowie), its portrayals are nuanced enough that each character comes off as deeply human regardless of their fame or importance to the novel’s plot. “In retrospective appraisal, [Marlene] divided her affairs not by gender or duration, but those for whom she’d cooked pot-au-feu and those she had not.…Marlene would not have guessed that she had one more pot-au-feu left in her, and for an anonymous caller no less.” It’s the steady accumulation of intimate details like these that creates a sweeping sense of history that feels truly alive.
When Richard "Dodge" Forthrast dies under anesthesia for a routine medical procedure, his story is just beginning.
As the founder and chairman of a video game company, Dodge has a pretty sweet life. He has money to burn and a loving relationship with his niece, Zula, and grandniece, Sophia. So when he dies unexpectedly, there are a lot of people to mourn him, including his friend Corvallis Kawasaki, who is also the executor of his will. To make matters worse (or, to say the least, more complicated), there's something unexpected in Dodge's last wishes. It turns out that in his youth he put it in writing that he wanted his brain to be preserved until such technology existed that his consciousness could be uploaded into a computer. And much to everyone's surprise, that technology isn't so far off after all. Years later, Sophia grows up to follow in her clever grand-uncle's footsteps and figures out a way to turn on Dodge's brain. It is at this point that the novel splits into two narratives: "Meatspace," or what we would call the real world, and "Bitworld," inhabited by Dodge (now called "Egdod") and increasing numbers of downloaded minds. Stephenson (co-author: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, 2017; Seveneves, 2015, etc.) is known for ambitious books, and this doorstop of a novel is certainly no exception. Life in Bitworld is more reminiscent of high fantasy than science fiction as the ever evolving narrative plays with the daily reality of living in a digital space. Would you have special abilities like a mythical god? Join your aura together with other souls and live as a hive mind? Create hills and rivers from nothing? Destroy your enemies with tech-given powers that seem magical? Readers looking for a post-human thought experiment might be disappointed with the references to ancient mythology, but those ready for an endlessly inventive and absorbing story are in for an adventure they won't soon forget.
An audacious epic with more than enough heart to fill its many, many pages.
A smart young Muslim Canadian woman navigates the complexities of career, love, and family in this lively homage to a Jane Austen classic.
“While it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there’s an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations are of secondary importance.” With that nod to Pride and Prejudice firmly in place, Jalaluddin lays the groundwork for a raucous story that mixes a zany cast of characters with a tightly wound plot. The “single Muslim man” in question is the handsome Khalid Mirza, who’s hiding behind a long beard and loose-fitting traditional clothes. Unlike his Muslim colleague, Amir, Khalid refuses to “edit” his identity by shaving or wearing jeans and is therefore unfortunately typecast even, at first, by his ravishing neighbor, Ayesha Shamsi. The 27-year-old Ayesha, focused on her teaching career and moonlighting as a poet, doesn’t have time for “fundy” Khalid, but, predictably, their paths keep intersecting. Khalid is a mama’s boy, though, and will do what she says when it comes to marriage. As a series of unfortunate events plays out, it becomes increasingly clear that there is more to both Khalid's and Ayesha’s stories. What happened to Khalid’s sister? Why does Ayesha feel beholden to her young and pretty cousin, Hafsa? Jalaluddin expertly works in a healthy number of parallel plotlines and keeps the reader invested in the final outcome. The ending might be predictable (this is Pride and Prejudice lite, after all) and a few peripheral characters feel one-dimensional, but all is forgiven as the story races along to its gushy and adorable wrap.
Scheming aunties, headstrong cousins, sweet grandparents, Pakistani-Canadian masala, and good old-fashioned romance are just the right ingredients for a delicious and entertaining novel.
The fate of Asian elephants raises important questions for conservationists.
In this illuminating book, geographer Shell (Geography and Urban Studies/Temple Univ.; Transportation and Revolt: Pigeons, Mules, Canals, and the Vanishing Geographies of Subversive Mobility, 2015) reports on his visits to the “remote forestlands between India and Burma,” where he followed the trails of working elephants and their riders, called “mahouts.” Strong and amazingly sure-footed, the trained elephants are able to traverse monsoon-soaked landscapes, ford torrential waters, climb up and down mountains, and lift and carry huge weights, making them essential to the logging industry. Of 40,000-50,000 elephants in South and Southeast Asia—compared with some half a million African elephants—about a third are involved in labor. While most African elephants exist in the wild, the working Asian elephants have been domesticated in a process that the author realizes will disturb many readers: “a captured elephant is usually tied up for months on end in the forest, each leg fastened to a tree,” denied food at first, then rewarded with treats for learning commands—or struck on the back or ear with a metal-tipped instrument. Once trained, elephants work days and are released into the forest at night to forage for food and mate, though their front legs are fettered with a chain to keep them from ranging too far. Most are not eager to escape since cooperating with humans protects them from hunters and poachers. Shell describes in detail elephants’ power, ingenuity, intelligence, and “profound feelings of loyalty and protectiveness” that make them so valued. This relationship between human and elephant, the author suggests, is a result of displacement when encroaching farmland pushed animal and human communities out of their original habitat in the plains. Both migrated to forests, where humans, turning to lumbering as a new livelihood, found elephants indispensable. To animal rights proponents who argue that elephants should live in the wild, Shell points out that with little effective protection, their habitat is vulnerable to deforestation. To those who see only a “picture of domination,” Shell makes a persuasive case that the reality is complicated
An insightful look at a rare cross-species relationship.
A gumiho, or nine-tailed fox from Korean folktales, fights for survival in contemporary Seoul, South Korea.
Gu Miyoung is not your typical teenager: She’s half gumiho and must feed on gi, the energy from living beings, every full moon. Conflicted over needing to kill to survive, she finds some moral reprieve by seeking out murderers as her prey with the help of Nara, a young shaman who sees the unsettled ghosts of the murdered. Unlike her legendary mom, Yena, who devours her prey’s livers, Miyoung humanely gives hers painless deaths, slowly draining their energy. Her family has moved whenever suspicions are raised or she accidentally shows her superhuman strength, and Miyoung has resigned herself to her nomadic life, staying emotionally detached and avoiding friendships. When she rescues high school classmate Jihoon from a goblin, her fox bead, or soul, falls outside her body. Things get complicated when Jihoon touches it, inadvertently connecting them through dreams. Faced with failing health from the removal of her fox bead, Miyoung lets Jihoon in, entrusting him with her secret mythical heritage—and the two are engulfed in adventure. The story is reminiscent of a K-drama with sweet romantic moments, lovable friends, and impossible obstacles, although there are some plot inconsistencies. Still, this is an addicting read with complex main characters and unexpected twists.
This fantasy debut will be eagerly devoured, and readers will clamor for a sequel.
The story of humanity’s presence in the deep sea, as told by diver and research biologist Streever (And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Moving Air, 2016, etc.).
“I wanted readers to embrace the part of our world that is shrouded by depth,” writes the author at the beginning of this broad survey of “people underwater, about the challenges of getting there, being there, and returning to the surface.” Writing in the conversational style that has marked his previous books, Streever begins with the 1960 descent of the Trieste submersible into the deepest of the ocean floors, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. It was a remarkable achievement, and the author rides the feat down—here is where scuba tanks implode, here is where the walls of a typical submarine would fail—to the bottom, where the pressure was measured at 16,883 pounds per square inch. This leads into a chapter on the all-consuming role of pressure on diving and its exertion not just on submersibles, but on the human body as well. The author, who lives aboard a cruising sailboat with his wife, offers a solid examination of the behavior of gases as one goes deeper under the waves. There is a smart chapter on breathing as the key to understanding diving, including exhale diving, apnea diving, and free diving. Regarding the last, during the ascent, the pressure in the lungs drops and oxygen in the tissues and blood flows back into the lungs, and the “diver may or may not notice the fading of consciousness.” Although the author discusses the many joys of deep diving both in and out of submersibles, he also emphasizes the perils of going beyond your capabilities. These include everything from working for sustained periods in deep water and relying on exotic gas mixtures to prevent such events as nitrogen narcosis to the fortunes and follies of the first submarines.
A buoyant, at times thrilling, account of the deep sea experience, perfect for divers and other lovers of life beneath the waves.
A lively tale about the “white marble mountain rising in the center” of Manhattan.
In her debut, New York Times real estate contributor Satow chronicles the history of one of New York City’s most iconic structures. Drawing on architectural, financial, social, and popular history, the author “examines how the Plaza is ground zero for the increasing globalization of money and the slow decoupling of pedigree from wealth.” She interviewed hundreds of people, from bellmen and managers to lawyers and chefs, to give her story a rich, personal touch (she was married in the hotel’s grand Terrace Room) and an entertaining, novelistic flair. The first Plaza was built in 1890 only to be torn down 15 years later. Financier Harry Black hired renowned architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh to construct a “nineteen-story white gleaming tower”; the construction cost “$340 million in today’s dollars.” The hotel was lavish and opulent, filled with the finest linens, silverware, 1,650 chandeliers, exquisite dining rooms, and a “dog check room.” It made its debut—along with the New York taxicab—in 1907, and the first guest was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, “the dashing millionaire.” Satow clearly loves details, and most of them are fascinating. The Plaza had a staff of 1,500, including more than 80 cooks and two men to dust the chandeliers. Throughout this sumptuous, busy history, the author enlightens and entertains with stories and anecdotes that recount the hotel’s many famous and colorful guests, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and author Kay Thompson (later evicted), whose fictional character Eloise also lived at the Plaza; how it weathered Prohibition and the Depression; changes in ownership, American (Conrad Hilton, Donald Trump) and foreign (Saudi Arabia, Singapore, currently Qatar); bankruptcy, and its controversial 2005 conversion to multimillion-dollar condominiums. As Satow writes, over “its 111 years, the Plaza has extolled beauty on the surface and grit behind the scenes.”
A Mexican-American family in Texas finds their home turned into a way station for immigrants smuggled across the border.
Cásares (Amigoland, 2009, etc.) returns to his hometown of Brownsville for a potent novel about the complexities of immigration and the lies we tell ourselves and our families. Twelve-year-old Orly is from Houston, has light skin, and speaks passable Spanish even though he strongly prefers English and sometimes denies knowing Spanish at all. After his mother’s sudden death, Orly is sent by his dad to spend the summer with his aunt Nina in Brownsville. Unbeknownst to him, Nina has a small, pink casita in her backyard being used by coyotes moving human cargo north. Neither Nina nor Orly quite knows how they got into their situations. Orly’s brother is at camp, his father is in Napa with a new girlfriend, and his mother’s absence is a gaping hole so big he can’t see the other side. Just when Nina thinks she’s rid of the smugglers for good, a young boy named Daniel knocks on her back door in the middle of the night after narrowly escaping Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Nina puts him up in the casita and now has to hide her secret from Orly, her elderly mother, and her bossy brother. As Nina, Orly, and Daniel learn each other’s secrets, the reader is treated to a novel that addresses the complexity of immigration, identity, and assimilation while telling close, intimate stories. The novel is told in a roaming third person that turns each character, no matter how seemingly one-dimensional or minor, into a powerful presence. Each voice in this chorus has something urgent to say. Cásares devotes a page or so of italicized backstory to seemingly minor characters who would drift out of a different novel without a second glance: a raspas vendor, a coyote quickly arrested, a Brownsville police officer, Orly’s English teacher, and many more. Whether it’s the teacher about to be deported, a man who doesn’t concern himself with the fact that his own mother used to be undocumented, or the many people making the dangerous crossing who are beset by tragedy, these asides all reveal the sometimes-hidden yet always profound effects of immigration. Helping us learn the truth about who we are individually and as a society is the ultimate goal of this novel.
In some ways timely, this quiet, delicate book delivers a truly timeless emotional punch.
A rare fungus inspires rapture, deceit, and stealth.
In an entertaining, revealing book debut, Pacific Standard deputy editor Jacobs brings his considerable skills as an investigative reporter to the fiercely competitive business of marketing truffles. Coveted by chefs and wealthy diners, truffles inspire rhapsodic descriptions of their earthy aroma and taste. “There’s something about them that is very primal,” one chef notes. “They get your attention at a very deep emotional level.” Tasting a white truffle, Jacobs reports, proved so intense that he felt transported, “momentarily, into an alternate universe, a place where flavor mattered more than truth and virtue.” Of the hundreds of truffle species, only a handful are edible, and of these, only two generate passionate “culinary fervor”: the rare, pale white truffle, “the culinary holy grail,” and black winter truffles, “the crown jewels,” which sell for an astonishing 500 to 1,000 euros per kilo. The truffles’ rarity and scarcity are the result of a complicated botanical process: Truffles’ spores emit a musk that attracts forest animals, which ingest them and release them as defecation on the forest floor. The spore cluster then needs to find a particular tree root in order to germinate, a process that can take decades; when it burrows into the root’s outer cells, a symbiotic relationship between tree and fungus begins, and through several seasons, if temperature and moisture are optimal, the truffle produces its edible fruit. Truffle hunters rely on specially trained dogs to sniff out their buried quarry, dogs that are vulnerable to stealing or poisoning by competitors. Truffles can be farmed as well as hunted, but competition is just as furious and “suspicion and paranoia” just as pervasive. France and Italy produce the most coveted truffles; some experts look for “the specific aroma that the Italian terroir imparts,” but other traders are not so particular, knowing that they can sell inferior truffles from Morocco, Tunisia, China, and Romania, passing them off as higher quality to buyers who desire “the appearance of wealth.”
A deftly crafted tale of obsessions and true crime in the culinary world.
Some people get lost with a map while others need only glance at the sky to know where they are. As this engaging work on the art and science of navigating capably shows, the better adept at geography wins.
Travel broadens the mind—literally. Writes journalist O’Connor (Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things, 2015) in this lively and consistently entertaining book, the hippocampus, which processes memory, enlarges with our geographical knowledge, such that “the environmental stimulus itself, the practice of navigation over time…showed plasticity, an ability to adapt and change, in structure of the brain.” Over the course of their many interesting adaptations to living in the world, humans have learned to travel great distances not just by making maps and charts or by reading compasses, but also by studying the sky and the Earth itself and, intriguingly, building bodies of song, story, and myth around them—e.g., the famed songlines of Australia, which the author considers at length. Fittingly, O’Connor courses from continent to continent, mining anthropology, geography, neurology, psychology, and biology, and she also looks at odd ethical problems: For instance, traditional Polynesian navigational methods run the risk of disappearing in light of GPS and other technologies, but those very technologies might also be used, properly applied, “to ensure that future minds continue to undergo ruprup jokur and fill with knowledge of the sea." Whether traditional or technologically enhanced, geographical knowledge is strongly linked with memory; an intriguing hypothesis links mental decline due to aging to the decline in navigating from place to place as one’s world shrinks. Throughout her own travels, O’Connor talked to just the right people in just the right places, and her narrative is a marvel of storytelling on its own merits, erudite but lightly worn.
There are many reasons why people should make efforts to improve their geographical literacy, and O’Connor hits on many in this excellent book—devouring it makes for a good start.
An assured debut novel that sets the life of one man against the tumultuous backdrop of Palestine in the waning years of British occupation.
Midhat Kamal has been thoroughly steeped in French culture—writes Hammad, he “knew the names of his internal organs as ‘le poumon’ and ‘le coeur’ and ‘le cerveau’ and ‘l’encéphale’ ”—but is never at home in his dreamed-of France, where he has come from his home in Nablus to study medicine. His French isn’t quite perfect, not at first, which occasions an odd thought: “What if, since by the same token one could not afford ambiguity, everything also became more direct?” Things happen directly enough that he’s soon enfolded in various dramas acted out by the good people of Montpellier. Midhat is a philosophically inclined soul who, as his yearned-for Jeannette remarks, is wont “to rely on what other people have said” in the countless books he’s read. Like Zhivago, he is aware of events but somehow apart from them. When he returns to Nablus at a time when European Jews are heeding Herzl’s call and moving to Palestine, he finds the city divided not just by the alignments of social class, but also by a new politics: “We must resist all of the Jews,” insists a neighbor of Midhat’s, advocating a militant solution that others think should be directed at the British colonizers. Hammad sometimes drifts into the didactic in outlining an exceedingly complex history, but she does so with a poet’s eye for detail, writing, for instance, of Nablus’ upper-class women, who “grow fat among cushions and divert their vigour into childbirth and playing music, and siphon what remained into promulgating rumors about their rivals." The years pass, and Midhat weathers change, illness, madness, and a declining command of French, seeking and finding love and family: At the end, he announces, “When I look at my life…I see a whole list of mistakes. Lovely, beautiful mistakes. I wouldn’t change them.”
Closely observed and elegantly written: an overstuffed story that embraces decades and a large cast of characters without longueurs.
Sixty years after her first love failed to meet her in a market square, Roya Khanom Archer finally has the chance to see him. But will he break her heart again?
Back in 1953, she was a 17-year-old schoolgirl, raised in a progressive home in Tehran, where her father encouraged Roya and her sister, Zari, to take advantage of the recent reforms that allowed women to go to university. While he hoped she might become a chemist, Roya loved escaping into novels, which sent her to Mr. Fakhri’s stationery and book store every Tuesday afternoon. There she first sees Bahman Aslan, a breathless young man already well-known as a political activist. Kamali (Together Tea, 2013) sets Roya and Bahman’s love against the tumultuous days of Mohammad Mossadegh’s rise and fall as prime minister of Iran, infusing their affair with political passion and an increasingly frantic sense of the shortness of time. Tuesday after Tuesday, the couple falls more deeply in love, and Bahman soon proposes marriage to Roya. While Roya’s family welcomes Bahman—although Zari warns Roya that his heart cannot be trusted—Bahman’s emotionally volatile mother refuses to accept the engagement, because she has already chosen Shahla, the daughter of a man closely allied with the shah, for her son. Roya determines to weather her future mother-in-law’s storms, but when Bahman and his family disappear, she can only turn to Mr. Fakhri for help. Although he cannot tell Roya where Bahman has gone, Mr. Fakhri offers to exchange secret letters between the lovers. The plan works, and the two even plan to elope, but Bahman does not show up in Sepah Square. Sixty years later, Bahman’s confession will finally expose the secrets that cast shadows over the lovers so long ago.