A lonely woman in New York spends her days guzzling merlot, popping pills, and spying on the neighbors—until something she sees sucks her into a vortex of terror.
“The Miller home across the street—abandon hope, all ye who enter here—is one of five townhouses that I can survey from the south-facing windows of my own.” A new family is moving in on her Harlem street, and Dr. Anna Fox already knows their names, employment histories, how much they paid for their house, and anything else you can find out using a search engine. Following a mysterious accident, Anna is suffering from agoraphobia so severe that she hasn't left her house in months. She speaks to her husband and daughter on the phone—they've moved out because "the doctors say too much contact isn't healthy"—and conducts her relationships with her neighbors wholly through the zoom lens of her Nikon D5500. As she explains to fellow sufferers in her online support group, food and medication (not to mention cases of wine) can be delivered to your door; your housecleaner can take out the trash. Anna’s psychiatrist and physical therapist make house calls; a tenant in her basement pinch-hits as a handyman. To fight boredom, she’s got online chess and a huge collection of DVDs; she has most of Hitchcock memorized. Both the game of chess and noir movie plots—Rear Window, in particular—will become spookily apt metaphors for the events that unfold when the teenage son of her new neighbors knocks on her door to deliver a gift from his mother. Not long after, his mother herself shows up…and then Anna witnesses something almost too shocking to be real happening in their living room. Boredom won’t be a problem any longer.
Crackling with tension, and the sound of pages turning, as twist after twist sweeps away each hypothesis you come up with about what happened in Anna’s past and what fresh hell is unfolding now.
New York Times reporter Leland (Why Kerouac Matters, 2007, etc.) chronicles the year he spent communing with the “oldest old,” gleaning as much of value about his own life as about those he followed.
Drawn from a remarkable newspaper series, this book, though sometimes repetitive and studded with occasional obvious insights, harbors far more than advice and received wisdom. The author offers an adaptive framework for a way of thinking about aging that can be transformational, and not in the conventional self-help sense. From the engrossing opening chapter to the close, Leland gives us a felicitous though practical perspective that mines a year in the life of six people ages 88 to 92, who “came from different backgrounds and social strata.” Many readers will find it encouraging to know that the future need not be all decline and diminishment. The author does not gloss over the physical and emotional difficulties of advancing years, some of which may seem insurmountable. But guided by the evolving outlooks of his subjects, Leland discovers strategies for compensating, for enrichment and usefulness at any age, including his own. Divorced at 55, living alone for the first time, and responsible for an 86-year-old mother whose only wish is to die, Leland finds his own path to acceptance and joy. If the title of the book sounds banal, it is no less valid for its (deceptive) simplicity. It is, in fact, absolutely true, as the six culturally diverse “seniors” demonstrate in their own fascinating ways. Few books about aging show such clarity and purpose or so deftly blend cleareyed examinations of social issues with a realistic but hopeful cast of mind.
In this edifying and often quite moving book, Leland presents the “lessons” taught by his subjects even as they themselves are learning them, and he does so with an empathy and thoroughness that deserve our gratitude.
Five diverse lives in India are traced and linked, exposing the aching gulfs in experience and opportunity that exist in a complex nation.
Particle physicists, Maoist terrorists, punitive employers, servants, and émigrés all have roles in Mukherjee’s (The Lives of Others, 2014, etc.) third novel, which is composed of interwoven short fictions moving between seething cities and rural life at its most impoverished. Themes of money, work, politics, survival, and women’s roles connect the characters. In Bombay, an elderly couple with a new cook welcomes home their liberal son, now living overseas, on his annual visit. His keen interest in food and research for a cookbook lead to awkward efforts to befriend the cook, resulting in a visit to her family’s home, a trip seamed with shame, pity, and wonder. Elsewhere, a poor villager, crushed under the burden of trying to provide not only for his own family, but his brother’s, too—the brother has gone to find work on construction sites in the cities—is relieved, perhaps, by the discovery of a bear cub. Having trained the bear to “dance”—an unbearably cruel process—man and animal begin a life together on the road and a kind of parallel existence, begging for food and money, debased and suffering. The fate of the absent brother is glimpsed in the sinister, haunting opening of the book and confirmed in its final section. The London-based Mukherjee surprises once again with the form of his storytelling while confirming anew the depth of his empathy. His characters’ life journeys are often painful while his descriptions of their circumstances are unsentimental, vivid, unsparing. Above all there is compassion here, alongside a focus that depicts gross inequities with a grim tenderness.
A calm, compelling, unshrinking portrait of humanity in transition; both disturbing and dazzling.
A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.
Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.
The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.
A massive biography of the Civil War general and president, who “was the single most important figure behind Reconstruction.”
Most Americans know the traditional story of Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885): a modest but brutal general who pummeled Robert E. Lee into submission and then became a bad president. Historians changed their minds a generation ago, and acclaimed historian Chernow (Washington: A Life, 2010, etc.), winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, goes along in this doorstop of a biography, which is admiring, intensely detailed, and rarely dull. A middling West Point graduate, Grant performed well during the Mexican War but resigned his commission, enduring seven years of failure before getting lucky. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was the only West Point graduate in the area, so local leaders gave him a command. Unlike other Union commanders, he was aggressive and unfazed by setbacks. His brilliant campaign at Vicksburg made him a national hero. Taking command of the Army of the Potomac, he forced Lee’s surrender, although it took a year. Easily elected in 1868, he was the only president who truly wanted Reconstruction to work. Despite achievements such as suppressing the Ku Klux Klan, he was fighting a losing battle. Historian Richard N. Current wrote, “by backing Radical Reconstruction as best he could, he made a greater effort to secure the constitutional rights of blacks than did any other President between Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson.” Recounting the dreary scandals that soiled his administration, Chernow emphasizes that Grant was disastrously lacking in cynicism. Loyal to friends and susceptible to shady characters, he was an easy mark, and he was fleeced regularly throughout his life. In this sympathetic biography, the author continues the revival of Grant’s reputation.
At nearly 1,000 pages, Chernow delivers a deeply researched, everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know biography, but few readers will regret the experience. For those seeking a shorter treatment, turn to Josiah Bunting’s Ulysses S. Grant (2004).
Murder, mayhem, and chalk figures in a sleepy English village.
In 1986, 12-year-old Eddie Adams enjoys spending time with his group of friends: Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo, and the lone girl in the group, Nicky. He’s largely insulated from his mother’s work as an abortion provider and its accompanying risks, and it’s her income that keeps the household afloat, since his father’s freelance writing jobs are hit and miss. When Eddie finds the decapitated and dismembered body of a local girl in the woods, it stirs up terrible secrets and forbidden passions. In 2016, Eddie is a teacher who harbors a mild crush for his much younger boarder, Chloe, and isn’t eager to revisit the traumatic events of ’86. He still feels particularly bad about his part in the downfall of a teacher with albinism who was kind to him. When he’s contacted by Mickey Cooper, who claims he knows who really killed that girl, it opens old wounds, and a body count follows. Readers will undoubtedly be reminded of the kids of Stand by Me and even IT. The dynamics among the kids are similar, complete with Nicky’s flaming red hair, and Eddie’s first-person narration alternates between past and present, taking full advantage of chapter-ending cliffhangers. The chalk markings the group works out to communicate tap into kids’ universal love for secret code and, of course, getting one over on their parents. Things takes a creepy turn when the symbols are twisted to fit someone’s not-so-innocent agenda.
A swift, cleverly plotted debut novel that ably captures the insular, slightly sinister feel of a small village. Children of the 1980s will enjoy the nostalgia.
A founder of Black Lives Matter chronicles growing up sensitive and black in a country militarized against her community.
With assistance from Bandele (Something Like Beautiful: One Single Mother's Story, 2009, etc.), Khan-Cullors synthesizes memoir and polemic to discuss oppressive policing and mass imprisonment, the hypocrisy of the drug war, and other aspects of white privilege, portraying the social network–based activism of BLM and like-minded groups as the only rational response to American-style apartheid. She argues repeatedly and powerfully that mechanisms have evolved to ensnare working-class people of color from childhood, while white Americans are afforded leniency in their youthful trespasses. She learned of such hidden codes early, and she documents her hardscrabble but vibrant upbringing in segregated, suburban Los Angeles during the 1980s. The drug war’s resurgence, and a newly punitive attitude toward the poor, cast a shadow over the lives of her endlessly working mother and her male relatives: “[My brother] and his friends—really all of us—were out there trying to stay safe against the onslaught of adults who, Vietnam-like, saw the enemy as anyone Black or Brown.” Her perspective was amplified by attending segregated, gifted schools in adjoining white suburbs, where she explored the arts and acknowledged her queer sexuality while developing a passion for social organizing. Later, her outrage over the unpunished killings of Trayvon Martin and others led her and two friends to brainstorm a new, viral social justice movement: “We know we want whatever we create to have global reach.” The author’s passion is undeniable and infectious, but the many summary-based passages sometimes feel repetitive, and the concrete narrative of BLM’s expanding activism is underdeveloped. Since she emphasizes her organizational focus as prioritizing the role of women of color and LBGT or gender-nonconforming individuals, the audience for this socially relevant jeremiad may be limited.
Not without flaws but an important account of coming of age (and rage) within today’s explosive racial dynamic.
The acclaimed journalist delivers “a second volume” of the history he recounted in the Pulitzer Prize–winning Ghost Wars (2004).
Based on hundreds of interviews and thousands of pages of documents, New Yorker staff writer Coll’s (Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, 2012, etc.) latest journalistic masterpiece “seeks to provide a thorough, reliable history of how the C.I.A., I.S.I., and Afghan intelligence agencies influenced the rise of a new war in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, and how that war fostered a revival of Al Qaeda, allied terrorist networks, and eventually, branches of the Islamic state.” Coll succeeds on all levels, and his prodigious research leads to only one conclusion: while the United States has won some battles in the so-called war on terror, it has unquestionably lost the war while feeding the radical fires of countless terrorists. The author demonstrates what he has suggested previously and what dozens of other authors have learned: that the U.S. has largely destroyed Afghanistan while trying to save it, similar to what occurred during the Vietnam War. The most prominent actor in this second volume is Pakistan. There are numerous examples of Pakistani factions promising to assist the American-led war on terror only to break promises while raking in billions of dollars in foreign aid. Whether the administration is that of George W. Bush or Barack Obama, the author’s reporting demonstrates countless foolish decisions by the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House. The State Department comes across as slightly less foolish but not devoid of criticism. Coll is masterful at plumbing the depths of agencies and sects within both Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the murderous groups that have become the main targets of the war on terror. The cast of characters at the beginning of the book will help readers keep track of all the players.
In this era of fake news, Coll remains above it all, this time delivering an impeccably researched history of “diplomacy at the highest levels of government in Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul.”
The conservative stalwart takes measure of the current administration and finds it sadly wanting—and dangerous, and immoral, and….
Atlantic senior editor Frum (Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, 2007, etc.) finds the Trump White House pointed evidence of declining faith in democracy. However, the thing to worry about, he writes, “is not the bold overthrow of the Constitution, but the stealthy paralysis of governance” and complete disregard for the “rules of the game” on which constitutional democracy is founded. Clearly, the author holds Trump in contempt; just as plainly, he gives Trump credit for the political cunning that enabled him to leverage such things as the birther hoax to capture a sizable segment of an embittered, angry populace. What bothers Frum is less the specter of a buffoonish bully than the acquiescence of the Republican Party. He writes, “the most radical attack on American norms of governance in his first year was attempted not by Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Anthony Scaramucci, or any other late-night demon figure, but by the regular Republicans of the House and Senate.” The author goes on to reckon with a host of factors that led to the current debacle, from racial tension and economic insecurity to the self-interested demands of baby boomers and the unholy wedding of the institutional GOP to a president who is, by all evidence, creating a third party. Against all this, refreshingly, Frum finds hope that the Trump administration will be remembered “as the end of something bad, and not the beginning of something worse.” In support of this qualified optimism, he notes that even as Trump continues to occupy the White House, other bullies and abusers have toppled, while the left has come to have a newfound appreciation of national security and elements of the right are accepting that government can, in fact, be a force for good.
Evenhanded, ideologically consistent, and guaranteed to generate a slew of angry tweets should a copy land at the White House.