A captivating tale of beautiful, rare, priceless, and stolen feathers.
Journalist Johnson (To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind, 2013) was fly-fishing in a New Mexico stream when he first heard about the “feather thief” from his guide. The author became obsessed with the story of Edwin Rist, a young American flautist and expert tier of salmon flies, who, after performing at a June 2009 London concert, broke into the nearby British Natural History Museum at Tring to steal 299 rare bird skins, including 37 of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace’s “beloved” Birds of Paradise. Johnson dove headfirst into a five-year journey “deep into the feather underground, a world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers, cokeheads and big game hunters, ex-detectives and shady dentists.” Everything the author touches in this thoroughly engaging true-crime tale turns to storytelling gold. These intriguing tales include that of Darwin rival Wallace’s extreme hardships trying to gather rare birds from around the world and losing many of them in a sinking ship; the incredibly wealthy Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild’s museum at Tring, which his father built for him when he was 29 to house his extensive collection of animals and birds, alive and dead; and the sad history of 19th-century women demanding the most exotic birds for their fashionable hats, which resulted in hundreds of millions of birds being killed. Throughout, Johnson’s flair for telling an engrossing story is, like the beautiful birds he describes, exquisite. Furthermore, like an accomplished crime reporter, the author recounts the story of how Rist was located and arrested by a local, female detective nearly 15 months after the break-in; the trial, which features an unexpected twist; and the fate of much of his booty.
A superb tale about obsession, nature, and man’s “unrelenting desire to lay claim to its beauty, whatever the cost.”
Sylvester’s second novel interweaves past and present, America and Mexico into the legacy of a family divided by its own stories.
The day of her wedding, Isabel meets her new husband's father’s ghost. Omar is trying to repair the damage he left his son, Martin, and wife, Elda, by persuading Isabel to give him a chance to work toward redemption. The novel treats the appearances of Omar throughout the story with a straightforwardness that both boosts his apparition’s legitimacy and also reveals the weakness in the book, which is a sort of flat tone that belies the moving family narratives. From the wedding day forward, Isabel is met by Omar on the Day of the Dead. The book transitions smoothly from past to present, and Sylvester is in complete control of her story. She gradually documents the original sin that traces trauma throughout the family legacy, revealing the battles and scars that Elda in particular bears, having immigrated illegally in the 1980s with Omar. Ultimately the appearance of Eduardo, Martin’s cousin, brings the past into the present and provides another point of view on Omar. Hospitalizations, rape, incarceration, and marital stress push and pull Isabel as she slowly learns to understand Martin’s family history. The book starts and ends powerfully but struggles in the middle to meet the dynamic needs of its story.
A forceful record of migration within a family and the dangers and triumphs of our undocumented population.
A celebrated poet shares the stories that defined him.
Near the beginning of his first work of nonfiction, Pulitzer Prize winner Pardlo (Digest, 2014, etc.) discusses the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike of 1981, which served as a way for Ronald Reagan to demonstrate his presidential power. The author’s father, an air traffic controller at the time, was fired from his job and forced to start anew in a society that posed systemic obstacles for black families. “I learned from my father that there was no glory in just winning,” writes Pardlo. “Capricious, pendular, my father’s wont was to sway by the rope of his devotions, to and fro, and winning was a one-way trip. What point was there in winning if it precluded the possibility of a comeback?” Punctuated by anecdotes and explorations of his relationship to his father and heritage, the book is a careful and delicately crafted window into the private life of the author, imparting knowledge and insight on identity and race politics in 20th-century America. Pardlo tells of the aftermath of his father’s termination, which led the author to join the Marines, travel abroad, slide into alcoholism, and, ultimately, find love. "I imagined freedom as a kind of armor that would protect me….I wanted to remake myself as a cosmopolitan artist with a magical blue passport,” he writes, “but I had only a two-word vocabulary for escape: money and power.” Pardlo’s work is masterfully personal, with passages that come at you with the urgent force of his powerful convictions: “What’s shameful is when poets, writers, artists deny culpability for perpetuating stereotypes or, worse yet, when we champion stereotypes to pander to our readers’ need to believe in a predictable, knowable world.” The author manages to distill stereotypes to their very core, providing a genuine and productive exposition of issues of masculinity in the contemporary world.
A decade in the life of a smart, earnest young woman trying to make her way in the world.
On Greer Kadetsky’s first weekend at Ryland College—a mediocre school she’s attending because her parents were too feckless to fill out Yale’s financial aid form—she gets groped at a frat party. This isn’t the life she was meant to lead: “You [need] to find a way to make your world dynamic,” she thinks. Then Greer meets Faith Frank, a second-wave feminist icon who’s come to speak at Ryland. During the question-and-answer period, Greer stands up to recount her assault and the college’s lackluster response, and, later, Faith gives her a business card. Like a magical amulet in a fairy tale, that card leads Greer to a whole new life: After graduation, she gets a job working for Faith’s foundation, Loci, which sponsors conferences about women’s issues. That might not be the most cutting-edge approach to feminism, Greer knows, but it will help her enter the conversation. Wolitzer (Belzhar, 2014, etc.) likes to entice readers with strings of appealing adjectives and juicy details: Faith is both “rich, sophisticated, knowledgeable” and “intense and serious and witty,” and she always wears a pair of sexy suede boots. It’s easy to fall in love with her, and with Greer, and with Greer’s boyfriend, Cory, and her best friend, Zee: They’re all deep, interesting characters who want to find ways to support themselves while doing good in the world and having meaningful, pleasurable lives. They have conversations about issues like “abortion rights, and the composition of the Senate, and about human trafficking”; they wrestle with the future of feminism, with racism and classism. None of them is perfect. “Likability has become an issue for women lately,” Greer tells an English professor while she’s still at Ryland, and Wolitzer has taken up the challenge. Her characters don’t always do the right thing, and though she has compassion for all of them, she’s ruthless about revealing their compromises and treacheries. This symphonic book feels both completely up-to-the-minute and also like a nod to 1970s feminist classics such as The Women’s Room, with a can't-put-it-down plot that illuminates both its characters and larger social issues.
The latest collection from the Manhattan-based essayist suggests she can write engagingly about nearly anything.
A decade after establishing herself with her bestselling debut, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Crosley (The Clasp, 2015, etc.) now finds herself addressing concerns and issues bordering on middle age, and she doesn’t like it. An early example of how many thematic levels she builds into an essay comes with “Outside Voices,” which seems, early on, to be about living in proximity to others, and then, more specifically, about “living on the most densely populated slip of land in America.” A lesser essayist would mine this for all it’s worth, but for Crosley, this is merely context for what comes to obsess her—the teenage boy next door and the family that entitles him to disturb the author’s personal space with his noisy outdoor social life. What really bothers her about him is his youth, which shows her how old she has become. So while the essay addresses the challenges and annoyances of overcrowded Manhattan, to the voyeuristic delight of readers who haven’t chosen to live there, it goes deeper into the universal ambivalence of realizing that you are no longer young and must seek out some type of second act as 40 approaches. As is typical in such collections, some essays are more ambitious and fully realized than others, but all work on multiple levels and all are sharply written, as Crosley continues to extend her impressive range. A writer writing about the writing life would not seem promising until she stumbles into a coven of pot-growing swingers who take the essay in an entirely different direction. An appearance on the canceled Gossip Girl might seem dated if it weren’t so perceptive on various levels of celebrity and the stereotypes that public figures adopt. The author’s closing essay on preserving her eggs is a marvel of ambivalence on ticking clocks and motherhood.
A smart, droll essay collection that is all over the map but focused by Crosley’s consistently sharp eye.
A debut book about the works of 20th-century women whose lives had a deep impact on culture.
“I gathered the women in this book under the sign of a compliment that every one of them received in their lives: they were called sharp,” writes New Republic contributing editor Dean. At first glance, the premise seems rather elementary. Such a qualifier can’t possibly carry with it the heft of a book’s premise. However, by exploring the different roles that women such as Joan Didion, Hannah Arendt, Renata Adler, Susan Sontag, and Dorothy Parker occupied in the writing world, Dean makes it clear that to be called “sharp” was a steppingstone for their respective careers. All of the women are obviously extremely different: Dorothy Parker was hardly a contemporary of Susan Sontag, nor did they function within the same society. Hannah Arendt was not as progressively irreverent as Renata Adler. However, Dean reveals intriguing connections that link most, if not all, of them together. Each one of these women was involved in one way or another with Condé Nast, an extremely influential publishing group that could make or break writers’ careers. In writing for the New York Review of Books or Vogue, among other publications, they were able to test out their ideas on a captive audience of fiery New Yorkers and sophisticated, fashionable women. As is often the case with geniuses, their writings were not received with open arms; there was push back from an audience used to a male authorial power. Interestingly, however different these women may have been from each other, the author ably explains the ways in which their lives intersected, the conversations they had, and the goals they shared. Unfortunately, Dean often discusses these female authors’ writerly independence in relation to the men that occupied important places in their lives, an odd choice in a book of this nature. Still, the author presents engaging portraits of brilliant minds.
A useful take on significant writers “in a world that was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything.”
The death of a drug-addicted patriarch, and the stockpile of cash he’s rumored to have left behind, has a broad impact across multiple families.
Frumkin’s ambitious, sensitive, and busy first novel centers on Leland Bloom-Mittwoch, who in 1999 flung himself from the roof of a Tampa hotel. He lived rough: He had a cocaine habit he routinely rationalized (he called it his “medicine”) and a family he often neglected. He also possessed a briefcase full of money that was previously in the hands of a drug dealer. Cue a hunt among family, friends, and enemies to locate it. But the luggage is a MacGuffin: The novel is less a mystery than a set of character studies that make up a cross-section of contemporary America, white and black, rich and poor, cis and trans. Individually, they’re remarkable portraits: Leland’s second wife, Diedre, nearly 20 years his junior, is an engrossing Florida street punk; Maria, his youngest son’s estranged girlfriend, was a child prodigy who at 15 was determined to “prove conclusively that the external world exists”; Natasha, who sacrificed a strict upbringing to take up with a drug dealer, is a tragic but indomitable figure. Intelligence is a common thread among the characters, which benefits Frumkin rhetorically—it frees her to riff on pharmaceuticals, music, Wittgenstein, Judaica, and fine art. But also thematically: She’s contemplating how much (or how little) brains have to do with our survival when many social forces are seemingly determined to undermine it. So the novel’s flaws are of the sort that afflict only writers who are swinging for the fences: complex plotting, research spilling off the pages like sap from a tree. A stronger novel would more efficiently connect its many threads (or dispense with a few), but from page to page, character to character, this is a powerful debut.
Frumkin has talent to burn, and this very good novel suggests the potential for a truly great one.
A former U.S. congressman takes on the gun industry and a big slab of American politics in this entertaining satire.
Israel (The Global War on Morris, 2014) served in the House of Representatives from 2001 to 2017 with a constituency on Long Island, New York, where part of his second novel takes place. When gun violence threatens the share price of Cogsworth International Arms, chairman and CEO Otis Cogsworth calls in lobbyist Sunny McCarthy to launch a bill requiring every U.S. citizen to carry a gun. The American Freedom from Fear Act allows Israel to reveal not only the grotesquerie in the legislative process, but the frightening ease with which such a measure can get passed, given enough money, political IOU’s, and complicit media. The story toggles between the national circus in Washington and the local politics of the fictional village of Asabogue, tucked among the beach towns of eastern Long Island. Mayor Lois Liebowitz copes with broken streetlights and the occasional demands from the village’s wealthy enclave of Billionaires Bluff, where Cogsworth lives. When she seeks to ban guns in Asabogue, Cogsworth and neighbor Jack Steele, an aging action-film star, cook up an effort to oust her in a recall vote, with the actor running for mayor. A subplot involves a local militant wacko who believes in an “Islamex plot” by which Muslims use the Mexican border to invade the U.S. Israel teases out personal ties between Lois and Sunny—two strong women characters in a largely male cast—and how they may figure in an electoral battle pitting million-dollar budgets and National Rifle Association muscle against a kitchen-table campaign that starts with little more than handmade lawn signs.
Israel recalls Carl Hiaasen and Christopher Buckley in their liberal bents and sense of the perniciously absurd. Will he be gunning for No. 45 in his No. 3?
Coles’ debut takes on the heartbreaking outcomes of a broken system of policing.
Through language that honors the enraging aspects of life in the inner city, readers meet Marvin and Tyler Johnson, twin high school seniors at a crossroads. Narrator Marvin jokes that their family story can feel like the stereotype for black boys. Their father is in jail, and Mama works extra hard to keep the family stable, leaving room for the influence of the streets to creep into their lives. All this is irrelevant when a police officer shoots Tyler dead after he attends a questionable neighborhood party. This is not the first time that Marvin and his friends have witnessed police violence. They’ve seen officers lift firearms at children, slam them to the ground, and verbally abuse them, with no consequences. Deep down, Marvin knows that he cannot become the hate that he senses in the world around him. This family’s struggle to find resolve, peace, and even a twinge of justice is full of life lessons, including this gem inspired by Auntie Nicola, a former cop: “Life is about wading in the rain, in all the storm’s fury…becoming one and the same with the storm—getting angry, getting heated, and being the change you want.” Coles, just 21, pens an immersive and uncompromising look at systemic police violence in the U.S.
While the author’s toolbox has some room for growth, he effectively dramatizes the human experience and ethical questions underpinning today’s Movement for Black Lives.