Summer reading is over; long live fall reading!
It’s not that reading — that thing that I would do all day were it not for the necessity of going to an office and earning a living — knows a particular season. But we’re approaching the cozy time of year, when even the most outdoorsy among us might find themselves in an armchair with a cup of tea, gazing out at the rain before letting their eyes drift down to a printed page. (Or, OK, a Kindle.) I love the idea, on a gray afternoon, of thinking of readers all over town curled up quietly, lost in books.
Should you need a recommendation, here are a few books that I’ve recently read and enjoyed. The great pleasure of my job, with an endless parade of books streaming in from publishers, is that I’m never at a loss for reading material — and, if I get started on something and it’s just not clicking, off it goes to the floor and on I go to the next. (Yes, there are a lot of books piled by my bed. Some of them I might try again, another day.) These selections range from blockbuster sure-to-be-best-sellers (hey there, J.K. Rowling!) to debut memoirs to literary fiction. Some are the latest offerings from favorite authors, others are voices new to me — but what each book has in common is that it held me spellbound to the final page. If you’re reading something good this fall, let me know!
“Transcription” by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown, $28, Sept. 25)
After being utterly dazzled by Atkinson’s brilliant “Life After Life” and its sequel/overlay “A God in Ruins,” my expectations couldn’t have been higher for her latest — another wartime novel, another experiment in playing with time and narrative. Here, our central character is Juliet Armstrong, who as a young woman becomes a transcriptionist for MI5 during World War II, eavesdropping on suspected fascist sympathizers; the book floats between this period and one 10 years later, when Juliet is a BBC radio producer. In the latter, shadows from her earlier life loom, and people keep popping up “out of the box that the past is supposed to be contained in.”
Atkinson’s writing is, as always, heaven to read; she describes a posh house’s ballroom as “the kind of room where men signed treaties that damned both victor and loser, or where girls in disguise mislaid their glass slippers.” Juliet is, of course, a girl in figurative disguise, as is nearly everyone we meet in this novel, populated with spies and double agents and people whose motives are as muddy as the cheap wartime tea Juliet gulps down. And as always, her structure is fascinating; throughout, Atkinson plays with the very idea of transcription — what is a novel if not words typed on a page, dictated and awaiting interpretation? — and with the conventions of fiction. (Very late in the book, a character says, “Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong.”) A terrible event is teased throughout the book, with tiny hints interrupting Juliet’s consciousness, like a shudder. And the day-to-dayness of wartime and its aftermath is this book’s well-worn wallpaper: the tasteless food, the small luxuries, the endless sense of waiting for something.
Like a transcription read aloud with differing inflections, you can find new angles to this book each time you read it (I went through it twice, and am quite ready to do it again). Atkinson has that gift, throughout her detective novels (the splendid Jackson Brodie series) and her recent wartime fiction — she’s both telling us a story and pulling back the curtain just a bit, showing us how she tells the story, how she builds this delicate house of cards. It’s mesmerizing, from every angle.
“Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster” by Stephen L. Carter (Henry Holt, $30, publication date Oct. 9)
Carter, a Yale law professor and an author (I remember devouring his suspenseful debut “The Emperor of Ocean Park” back in 2002), here performs an important act of reclamation: for history, in bringing the remarkable life of Eunice Hunton Carter back into the light, and for his family. Eunice (1899-1970) was Carter’s grandmother, born in Atlanta, raised in Brooklyn — and for a time in the mid 20th century, one of the most famous black women in the country.
As a child, Carter remembered her as stern and forbidding, but now, he and all of us have a much more nuanced, fascinating portrait of the woman he called Nana — a brilliant scholar who graduated from Smith College in 1921 with a bachelor’s and a master’s in four years (only the second woman in Smith’s history, he tells us, to do this), who rubbed shoulders as a writer with key members of the Harlem Renaissance, and who enrolled in law school at a time when no black lawyer had ever been admitted to the New York Bar Association.
Carter uses his novelist’s toolbox to bring suspense and drama to Eunice’s work with Manhattan special prosecutor (and later New York governor and unsuccessful presidential candidate) Thomas E. Dewey, showing how she was key in bringing the mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano to justice in 1936. Constantly having to prove herself within a sea of white men, Eunice’s career was one of both great triumph and crushing disappointment, and she emerges here not as a saint but as an ambitious, tireless worker. “Things did not work out as neatly as they might have had she been white, or male, or both,” Carter writes, with elegant understatement. But quitting, we learn through these pages, was not in her nature: Eunice’s triumph, we learn, was in “her constant and remarkable reinvention.”
“All You Can Ever Know” by Nicole Chung (Catapult, $26, publication date Oct. 2)
Chung’s beautifully written memoir about adoption, parenthood, race and identity has aching honesty in every line. Ultimately, it’s a story of overlapping circles of family: the one she was born into, the one she grew up in and the one she formed. Born in Seattle in 1981, she was placed for adoption by her Korean parents and grew up in a white family in an Oregon town where people of color were rare; in her first 18 years there, she never met another Korean. Describing a visit to Seattle as a child, she was thrilled to be among other Asian faces. “It was novel, exhilarating, to be one among so many; it was a glimpse of the world as it could be.”
The book reveals what happened when Chung, as an adult, began exploring the details of her adoption, unveiling the story to us like a heart-wrenching mystery being solved. I don’t want to reveal many of the details — that’s part of the pleasure of the book — but what emerges is a history very different from what Chung imagined; a “Korean soap opera,” she wrote, populated by people who didn’t all fit neatly into the noble-immigrant template she’d imagined. But you read these pages awed by Chung’s ability to combine clear-eyed unsentimentality with faith and optimism, and to create a family not from her dreams, but from her reality. She has, by its end, built an identity “from what has been lost and found.”
“Fashion Climbing: A Memoir With Photographs” by Bill Cunningham (Penguin, $27)
The legendary New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham died in 2016, but left behind a treasure: a neatly typed memoir, found by his family among his belongings, about his early years in fashion. Now it’s finally in print, and it is — like a fanciful hat — pure pleasure. You’ll find nothing here of Cunningham’s nearly four decades at the Times, in which he elevated street-fashion photos to joyful art; these are the memories of a young man newly arrived in New York (he grew up in a Boston suburb) to make his fame and fortune as a society hatmaker, written with a palpably wide-eyed wonder.
Even though the book begins with Cunningham’s mother “beat(ing) the hell out of me” for wearing his sister’s dress at age 4, “Fashion Climbing” mostly bubbles with happiness. (In one of very few passages of self-reflection, Cunningham notes that “My poor family was probably scared to death by all these crazy ideas I had, and so they fought my direction every step of the way.”) Resourcefulness and dedication to his goal abounds; this is a man who, when drafted into the army and sent overseas in 1950, maintained his hat business in a French millinery shop — and, when the general found out, was asked to open a hatmaking school for military wives. “It was a hilarious scene to see me trailing out of the army barracks, packing all this feminine fluff into the car,” Cunningham writes, of being picked up by the general’s limo with his feathers and ribbons. “It sent the post’s colonel into a state of shock.”
Stateside, Cunningham writes about his early, broke years as a Manhattan milliner (he swathed his tiny West Side shop in hundreds of yards of nylon curtain, scavenged from the trash and washed in his bathtub, for the effect of a “seductive harem”), his freelance work at Women’s Wear Daily, his breathless reports from fashion shows and his gradual realization by the early 1960s that the hat business was quietly grinding to a halt. It’s a portrait of a time and place, written without pretension but with fly-on-the-wall slyness. (Coco Chanel is described as “that delicious eighty-year-old-plus Witch of the West.”) What a treat, for those who loved Cunningham’s work in the Times, to spend time with him again.
“The Witch Elm” by Tana French (Viking, $28, publication date Oct. 9)
The great Tana French’s latest novel, her seventh, is something new: a stand-alone work, told from the point of view of a crime victim. Her previous novels — all of them soulful literary procedurals, most recently “The Trespasser” — have been set within the same police precinct, the Dublin Murder Squad, each with a different team member stepping up from the background as narrator. You get the sense, reading them, of an entire world, with the colors of each character being filled in book by book.
Now we’re in a new world; that of Toby Hennessy, a cheery Dublin bloke who does PR for an art gallery. His agreeable life — handsome face, sweet girlfriend, good pals, evenings in pubs — is changed forever when he is attacked and beaten savagely by burglars in his apartment, in the book’s early pages. Recovery from his head injury is slow and painful; “now every second,” he ponders, “was part of an inexorable tide drawing me farther and farther from that guy whom I had every right to be and who was gone for good, left behind on the other side of that unbreakable sheet of glass.”
The book’s central mystery, which French masterfully takes her time getting to, takes place at his family’s ancestral home, where an ancient tree conceals a strange, violent story that may or may not be connected to Toby. You savor the details — the way Toby’s extended family spreads itself over the house like melting butter; the sly portrayal of the cops, whose techniques we can read more easily than Toby can; the delicious portrayal of crisp fall weather in Ireland — as you race through the pages. Ultimately, it’s both a tick-tocking mystery and a fascinating portrayal of memory as a cracked mirror, through which the past can’t quite be seen clearly.
“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith (Mulholland Books, $29)
J.K. Rowling (writing under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith), in her delicious detective series featuring the Nick-and-Nora-or-not duo Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, left us with one hell of a cliffhanger in her last installment, 2015’s “Career of Evil.” (Is it a spoiler if I tell you? After three long years? Let’s just say it involves an interrupted wedding.) Finally, Strike and Robin are back, and things pick up right where we left off, and … oh, I’m not going to tell you. But such is the power of these characters that I pounced on this book like my cat does with her toy mouse, reluctant to sleep or leave the house until I’d made it to its final pages — a less dramatic ending than before, but one that still left me eager for more.
“Lethal White,” whose complex plot revolves around a posh family, an old manor house and a mentally ill young man who may or may not have witnessed a murder, doesn’t quite reach the perfection of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” (the first and best of the series) in its storytelling. As with the later editions of the Harry Potter series, just a bit of editorial tightening up might have been in order. While the details of Strike’s and Robin’s personal lives are always compelling, the details of the various family members involved with the crime occasionally overwhelm.
But it is, as always, a joy to hang with Strike and Robin, and it’s to Rowling’s enormous credit that these two — who seemed fully formed from the first pages of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” — continue to develop and become richer characters with each book. (It’s also great fun to see the return of a fascinating character from earlier in the series — and no, I’m not going to tell you who it is.) “Lethal White” goes to some dark places in its character’s psyches, in a way that feels quite appropriate for two people whose work involves proximity to violent crime. But much of it is simply Strike and Robin, in a pub or at the office, pulling at the threads of a tangle together; the will-they-or-won’t-they is alive and well, but so is one of contemporary crime fiction’s most delightful partnerships.
“The Winter Soldier” by Daniel Mason (Little, Brown, $28)
A young, idealistic medical student travels to a distant field hospital in the Carpathian Mountains in north Hungary, leaving his wealthy family behind in Vienna; it’s World War I, and Lucius — who in all his training has only touched four living patients — is eager to become a hero by practicing the art of surgery. Arriving at the outpost, where a church has been commandeered for the wounded, he finds he is the only doctor there, and the only nurse is a loquacious, determined nun named Sister Margarethe. Over weeks and months of tending to the horrifically injured, the two begin to form a connection, which becomes an unlikely wartime romance.
This description of the latest novel from Mason (himself a physician/psychiatrist, and author of “The Piano Tuner” and “A Far Country”) sounds like it might be a slightly creaky, melodramatic love story, destined to become a movie with sweeping music and not-quite-subtle performances. But instead it’s a remarkable example of how a skilled writer can turn a dusty premise into a story bursting with vivid life. There is nothing romanticized about Lucius and Margarethe’s work; the lice and frigid cold and unthinkable injuries (the squeamish will need frequent pauses) are rendered with meticulous art. It’s less a story of love than a story of pain, of how war pinches one’s emotions in a grip, of how the human brain processes glimpses of hell. Mason’s prose, however, flows like clear water, leaving us moved by these star-crossed lovers, and by the soldiers “who seemed forever stuck in their eternal winters.”
“The Caregiver” by Samuel Park (Simon & Schuster, $26)
It’s impossible to read Park’s graceful novel, his second, without pausing to appreciate the poignancy of the story behind it: Park, not long after he finished writing it, died of stomach cancer in 2017, aged just 41. In “The Caregiver,” a character — not a central one, but a key one — has stomach cancer; after surgery, she “looks like the chalk police outline of her own body.” You imagine Park creating this character, gazing at her, deciding what her fate might be. It seems a remarkable example of literary courage.
A haunting mother/daughter story, “The Caregiver” is narrated by a Brazilian woman named Mara, at two points in her life: in the early 1970s as a child in Rio de Janeiro, and the 1990s as a young immigrant in California working as a caregiver, still surprised by a country where “there weren’t ghosts everywhere.” (Park himself was born in Brazil, raised in Los Angeles.) Mara is obsessed with thoughts of her single mother, Ana, who undertook a dangerous alliance with a rebel group to earn money. Floating from Mara’s present to her past, the book slowly reveals Ana to us, as grown-up Mara begins to grapple — as young adults must — with not the adored fantasy of her mother, but the real woman, an unstoppable force. “She was a river,” muses Mara, “and I was just the boat careening from side to side.”
“The Shakespeare Requirement” by Julie Schumacher (Doubleday, $25.95)
“Dear Publishing Industry: Why do you produce so few truly funny novels? Love, Moira”
I’ve never sent the letter above, but I’ve often been tempted to — and, if I had, this rollicking novel might be the answer. (To which I’d say: grateful thanks, but how about a few more?) A sequel to Schumacher’s 2014 novel “Dear Committee Members,” which won the Thurber Prize for American Humor, “The Shakespeare Requirement” returns us to the perfectly named Payne University. (Banners for an upcoming centenary read “One Hundred Years of Payne.”) English Department chair Jason Fitger has many, many headaches, not least of which are the far-better-funded Economics department’s tendency to poach his space; his torch-carrying feelings toward his ex-wife, who’s now sleeping with his dean; and the tendency of his undergraduate students to hand in essays replete with “floral or multicolored paper or typeface, plastic cover-sheets, emoticons and links to YouTube videos.”
If you’ve ever spent time in a college English department, you’ll recognize many of the types portrayed here. (Schumacher is on the English faculty at the University of Minnesota, an institution I devoutly hope is nothing like Payne University.) But even Econ majors who spent their college years in a velvet cocoon (that’s the idea this book gives) will appreciate the descriptions of faculty meetings, in which “discussion was always an unpopular option, leading as it did to calumny, stalemate, lamentation and wrath,” and might find themselves rooting for Fitger, a lovable Luddite who can’t seem to do anything right. What fools these mortals be, and what fun they are to encounter — on the page, at any rate.
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