This week: the genius of the music of Prince, plus a madcap thriller full of hidden identities.
At the start of this madcap thriller full of hidden identities from Boylan (She’s Not There), a night of goofy postcollege mischief goes horribly amiss in Philadelphia’s shut-down Eastern State Penitentiary in 1980. When human remains surface at the site decades after the party, one of the six revelers, Jon Casey—now a top chef in Philadelphia—is charged, although the gumshoe assigned to review the cold case files senses more than a possible crime of passion has been covered up. In the interim, it appears that another party participant, a friend of Casey’s, may have faked his own death. In rural Maine, freelance writer Judith Carrigan, who knew both the victim and Casey back when, knows the latter to be innocent. But to help Casey would put her family and happiness on the line. Boylan’s bluff, witty prose (“my actual innocence got on his nerves”) charms away any impatience with more far-fetched aspects of her loopy plot. And embedded in the whodunit is a heartwarming midlife love story, in which hard-won candor, tenacity, and a generous sense of humor are the most saving of graces.
With uncommon grace, this work illuminates the strides and limitations of humans’ quest to understand nature via math and science. Du Sautoy (The Music of the Primes), Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, takes readers to seven different “edges” of knowledge and shows why “Newton, Leibniz, and Galileo were perhaps the last scientists to know all that was known.” From chaos, which “placed huge limits on what we humans could ever hope to know,” to consciousness, to infinity itself, each edge “represents a horizon beyond which we cannot see.” Patiently and cleverly explaining basic principles, du Sautoy begins most sections with a simple touchstone and builds from there, deftly rendering otherwise recondite theories: a pair of dice leads to probability, a cello to the nature of matter, a pot of uranium to quantum physics. One-on-one interviews with scientists and du Sautoy’s descriptions of his participation in various experiments breathe life into cold data, as when the author perceives his consciousness in another person or observes the illusion of his free will in an fMRI. This brilliant, well-written exploration of our universe’s biggest mysteries will captivate the curious and leave them pondering “natural phenomena that will never be tamed and known.”
Brave, keenly observational, and humanitarian, Gerard’s (Binary Star) collection of essays illuminates the stark realities of Florida’s Gulf Coast. With a mixture of investigative journalism and firsthand experience, she brings to life outspoken zealots, hopeless romantics, and escapist youth. She describes the hunger of Christian Scientists for earthly and spiritual wellness, Amway members for self-determined success, adolescents for reckless euphoria, testosterone-flooded males for dominance, and the underprivileged for nothing more than adequate housing and shelter. Gerard is a virtuoso of language, which in her hands is precise, unlabored, and quietly wrought with emotion. As evinced by the extensive bibliography and endnotes, she is also a very diligent journalist. To some, her thorough analyses of flawed legislation, business, religion, and literary journalism may feel long-winded at times, but readers interested in those topics will be fascinated. The chapters that will reach any reader are her deeply sad yet valiant personal essays on youth and death. Gerard’s collection leaves an indelible impression. Fans of literary nonfiction and dark reverie will welcome it.
Part fan’s notes and part cultural criticism, music journalist Greenman’s absorbing and entertaining study of Prince and his music compellingly underscores the Purple One’s enduring contributions to pop music. After he buys his first Prince album—1999—in 1982, Greenman becomes obsessed with the music, waiting anxiously at the local record store for every new album and discovering that Prince is, among other things, a “jazz-age sweetie, spiritual pilgrim, sexual puppeteer.” Greenman chronicles Prince’s life from his childhood up through the earliest moments of his career, but and he peers into the sources of Prince’s inspiration as well as the many themes that appear constantly in his music, such as sex, virtue and sin, and race and politics. Greenman also considers the reasons that Prince changed his name in 1993—in part as a ploy to retrieve his masters from Warner Brothers—and his frustration with the Internet as a method for delivering his music. Prince’s genius is on full display here as Greenman remarks on his prolific music virtuosity, putting out an album once a year, and his obsessive dedication to saving every little scrap of his writing and recording to use again. Greenman’s brilliant book celebrates a musician who crammed substance into every corner of his music.
In Danish novelist Grondahl’s stunning latest, a recently widowed 70-year-old woman reexamines her life and past decisions with sagacity and aplomb. The novel is written in the form of a letter from Ellinor to her long-deceased best friend, Anna, whose husband Ellinor married after Anna died. In it, Ellinor shares her feelings about their close-knit bond, the challenge of taking Anna’s place after her death as a mother to her twin boys, growing accustomed to being Georg’s new wife, and the decision to sell the house after he died. Some of Ellinor’s complaints are par for the course; the boys are miffed she got a new apartment so quickly after Georg’s death, for example. But a number of weightier matters are also addressed, including Ellinor’s botched abortion and Anna’s secret affair with Ellinor’s first husband, Henning, just before she died. Toward the second half of the book, parallel narratives seamlessly emerge that add depth and an extra layer of sorrow to Ellinor’s story, including the truth about her absentee father—the German soldier her mother fell in love with during World War II—and details about her ill-matched relationship with Henning. Despite the book’s gloomy subject matter, Ellinor comes off like a beacon of strength with a firm grasp on reality. Plus, Grondahl has full command over his prose—it’s more frank than maudlin. What results is a compassionate and often edifying commentary on the elasticity of love, the strength it takes to move forward after a death, and the power of forgiveness.
In this absorbing and lucid study, Gura, a professor of American literature and culture at UNC–Chapel Hill, examines the reform movement in the quarter century before the outbreak of the Civil War. Focusing on both well-known figures, such as Henry David Thoreau and Horace Greeley, and less familiar ones, such as Mary Gove Nichols and William B. Greene, Gura depicts these individuals as struggling to make sense of the drastic economic and social changes that were reshaping the U.S. in this era, particularly the Panic of 1837. In Gura’s view, these intellectuals contributed to “the bankruptcy of an American liberalism” in the mid-19th century, as they attributed even nationwide financial crises to the moral failures of individuals rather than structures and institutions. This failure to distinguish between personal and societal agency rendered these well-intentioned people’s writings incapable of contributing to the resolution of their nation’s problems, and also resulted in John Brown’s tragic raid on Harpers Ferry. Reformist intellectuals believed so deeply in the power of a single person to produce social change that they were willing to give moral and financial support to Brown’s bloody and futile crusade. Gura’s book is deeply pessimistic about individual efficacy in response to social crises, which remains relevant in the 21st century.
Hämäläinen makes his English-language debut with a darkly humorous, carefully crafted Finnish take on the classic British locked-room mystery. Telegraphing the ending first—no one is alive in millionaire banker Robert’s London apartment—Hämäläinen rewinds to the events of a dinner party, to which Robert has invited his old school friend Mikko, whose sense of righteousness as an investigative journalist fighting financial corruption leads him to take the occasion as an opportunity to poison Robert for the good of the world. Mikko’s wife, Veera, who is fiercely attached to him despite a long secret affair with Robert, and Robert’s beautiful wife, Elise, whose simplicity hides a complex background, round out the group. Hämäläinen is at ease with using the four distinct character voices to shift the apparent power balance constantly over the course of the evening, providing both thrilling surprises and the dread of inevitability, all in the context of some truly delightful dinner dialogue.
Lemire’s best stories (the Essex County trilogy) are permeated with loss–his characters are always pining for something that once was and can never be again. While reveling in the pulp fantasies of silver age superhero comics and EC’s lurid sci-fi/horror stories, this collection is as much a study of loneliness and isolation as it is a superhero deconstruction. It opens with six former superheroes who’ve been mysteriously trapped on a small farm for a decade. Each chapter, beautifully illustrated by Ormston (Lucifer) with eerie, stripped-down realism, explores each hero’s identity, origins, and path to ending up on the farm. As the narrative unfolds, the haunting backstories add greater context and intrigue to the mysteries of the present. There’s an astonishing clarity to the characters and their motivations amid what could easily become a convoluted backstory filled with interstellar exploration, multiverse travelling, alien diplomacy, and quiet farm life. If Black Hammer lives up to its early promise, it will deserve a place on the shelf right next to the Watchmen series.
A gritty and inspiring survival story, Peet’s final novel, completed by Rosoff after his death, has the stoic quality and soul of a Steinbeck tale. Set in the 1920s and early ’30s, it traces the saga of Beck, a British youth born out of a tryst between his destitute mother and a visiting sailor from West Africa. After Beck’s mother dies just before his 11th birthday, he is brought to a “dire and loveless” orphanage. From there, he is shipped to Canada, where he’s subjected to severe sexual abuse in an establishment run by the Christian Brotherhood, then sent to a farm where he is put in charge of livestock. Tired of being underfed and overworked, Beck runs off: his arduous travels coincide with an inner journey to understand where he fits in, and the kindnesses shown by bootleggers and an older woman of mixed Scottish and Siksika heritage lead him to draw conflicting conclusions about the world and its inhabitants. Harrowing but hopeful, it’s a memorable portrait of a boy struggling to love, be loved, and find his way against overwhelming odds.
By turns critical and lyric, this essay concerning sculptor Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field gives readers a rare entry into an experience of the singular work of land art, and into the essential nature of experience and memory. Raicovich, the director of Queens Museum and author of A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties, made several visits to The Lightning Field, which consists of 400 steel poles located in an isolated, mile-long field in New Mexico. She combines her intimate, studied observations with the writings of a vast array of mathematicians and thinkers, including Benoit Mandelbrot and Gertrude Stein. Attempting to answer the question “How reliable is memory?,” the essay is a beautifully chaotic map of thought and experience that both mirrors the experience of a work of art and probes its essence. The vivid language renders a landscape lush with “brown eyes of pooled rainwater,” where “each pole appeared to bear a tiny flame against the sky.” Raicovich’s sharp, almost scientific concessions to confusion and disorder make the essay, like de Maria’s work, a fiercely poignant treatise in which “concentration is more easily achieved, revealing the remarkable.”
Rosenthal, a New York Times senior writer and former physician, provocatively analyzes the U.S. healthcare system and finds that it’s “rigged against you,” delving into what’s gone wrong as well as how Americans can make it right. In the first part of this astounding takedown, Rosenthal unveils with surgical precision the “dysfunctional medical market” that plays by rules that have little to do with patient-centered, evidence-based medical care. In part two she prescribes the rigorous but necessary steps to fix the broken system. Rosenthal chronicles a startling cascade of escalating pressures that steadily drove up medical costs, including the skyrocketing spread of health insurance coverage in the 1940s and ’50s, hospitals’ adoption of big-business models, and doctors’ convoluted payment schemes. “Our healthcare system today treats illness and wellness as just another object of commerce: revenue generation,” Rosenthal writes. She also notes that politicians, insurers, hospitals, and doctors have all maneuvered to “undermine” the Affordable Care Act. Her advice for now is starkly simple: we need to question everything, including your choice of doctor, hospital, billing statement, insurance, and the drugs and devices we’re prescribed. Given the “false choice of your money or your life,” Rosenthal argues, “it’s time for us all to take a stand for the latter.”
In this touching and intimate memoir, Shapiro (Slow Motion, Devotion) admits that she has lost interest in telling stories. Instead she focuses on what is underneath: “the soft, pulsing thing that is true.” Over the years, the truth has become less hard-edged, more nuanced, than when she was young and had “all the self-knowledge of a Labrador retriever.” She does revisit earlier themes—her father’s death, her son’s devastating illness—but really this is about her 18-year marriage to “M.” There are many ups and plenty of downs, too. M had traded his career as a successful war correspondent for one as a struggling screenwriter, so that she wouldn’t have to worry about him being on the battlefield. But she does worry about him, fretting that one more disappointment will lead to hopelessness and he will follow his mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. Shapiro beautifully weaves together her own moving language and a commonplace book’s worth of perfect quotes from others. Journals from her honeymoon—the last she kept—are often lists of things and places that in their very meaninglessness make an effective counterpoint, emphasizing what she has learned since the days of that beginning.
In four ebullient linked stories, Snyder (Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova) and Hughes (A Brave Bear) introduce the two eponymous brothers and their down-to-earth family. “I am a mom,” says Mom when she refuses to come out from under the covers early one morning. “I can do what I want.” From there, readers follow along as Charlie and Mouse organize an impromptu party at a playground, try to make money selling rocks (a nifty twist makes this the best story in the book), and try to postpone bedtime as long as possible. “We cannot go to sleep without a bedtime banana,” says Mouse, backing up Charlie. It’s a friendly, hang-loose world: the boys share a bed, Mouse dons a tutu for the playground party, and the customers for the boys’ rock-selling business include a gay couple, Mr. Erik and Mr. Michael. The emphasis on dialogue gives the stories the immediacy of a play script, and Hughes’s easygoing vignettes add just the right amount of visual punctuation.
“Every turning toward is a turning away,” writes poet and critic—also PW’s director of digital operations—Teicher (To Keep Love Blurry) to open his fourth collection, an affecting examination of the trade-offs that parenthood, adulthood, and art require. Looser than his previous work but just as perceptive, the book pulses with the acute anxieties of raising a child who has “a body not built// to work.” Its tender, open poems document Teicher’s mortal responsibilities—“I can divide all life/ into breath and waiting/ for the next breath,” he observes in one—and offer a chance to escape them, to muse during the “calm in the troughs/ between.” For example, “Edgemont” takes a long look back on the poet’s suburban childhood (“Nothing’s so poignant now as then,/ and mostly I’m relieved”) while a number of others offer genuine insight on verse as a vocation. Poetry is “never enough,” he writes in one of several poems titled “Why Poetry: A Partial Autobiography”: “my lamentation/ did not un-injure my son or/ get me back my job.” This is a modest book, but also a rare, undeceived one. It offers only what it can, which may be all that poetry can hope to: small joys and hard-won wisdom.
Wesson, scientist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey, reexamines Darwin’s life and his Beagle voyage to illuminate the great scientist’s contributions to geology. Though known best for the theory of evolution, Darwin was initially given a berth on the Beagle as a geologist. In South America, Darwin’s observations led him to the belief that a gradual process of uplift was the primary factor in the changes in the Earth. He also discovered examples of fossilized megafauna and, later in the voyage, developed a theory of the formation of coral atolls. Wesson journeys to some of Darwin’s destinations, both to examine the theories in context and to evaluate the effects of recent earthquakes. He quotes Darwin often; giving readers a sense of Darwin’s thought processes and occasionally beautiful writing. Darwin’s theory of uplift was superseded by plate tectonics in the mid-20th century, but Wesson reminds readers that Darwin “simply did not have enough of the pieces to solve the puzzle.” Later chapters address the development of the concept of plate tectonics as a logical follow-up to Darwin’s work as well as current theories on megafauna extinction. Readers interested in Darwin, the earth sciences, and field-based research will find this well worth their time.