This week: an author who can do seemingly anything with words, a Florida to Alaska road trip, and David Rakoff's novel in verse. Plus, a $50,000 coat.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (Random House) - The person and work of Jesus of Nazareth has been a topic of constant interest since he lived and died some 2,000 years ago. Much speculation about who he was and what he taught has led to confusion and doubt. Aslan offers a compelling argument for a fresh look at the Nazarene, focusing on how Jesus the man evolved into Jesus the Christ.
The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean by Philip Caputo (Holt) - Faced with a double dose of mortality—his father’s death and the prospect of turning 70—Caputo decided in 2011 to live a long-dormant dream. He hitched an Airstream trailer to a pickup truck and drove from the southernmost point of the continental U.S (Key West, Fla.) to the northernmost point (Deadhorse, Alaska). During the trip, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author asked people he encountered one burning question: what keeps the nation together during this wobbly period of high unemployment and political fragmentation?
Massacre Pond by Paul Doiron (Minotaur) - The people of Washington County, Maine, are in an uproar in Doiron’s fourth novel starring game warden Mike Bowditch, the best yet in the series. Hippie-turned-millionaire Betty Morse has spent some of her fortune to buy 100,000 acres of woodland that she intends to give to the federal government for a national park. Morse now has a long list of enemies, including hunters and forest-product workers whose lives and finances would be adversely affected. The first manifestation of the hostile reaction to Morse’s purchase may be the shooting of five moose on her property.
Moth; or How I Came to Be with You Again by Thomas Heise (Sarabande) - Neither memoir, poem, nor novel, Moth is somehow all three—an effusive ramble through the space of language and the language of memory. Written during a period of intensely disorienting insomnia, Heise’s “autobiography of fever” recalls the orphanage of the author’s childhood, an affair he had with a psychiatrist, and a peripatetic adulthood. In this book, Heise seems capable of doing anything with words.
Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler edited by Rebecca J. Holden and Nisi Shawl (Aqueduct) - This noteworthy anthology—published by a feminist small press in memory of Butler, an African-American science-fiction author—consists of a wide-ranging selection of sometimes-dense scholarly essays, highly readable reminiscences and personal essays, poems, correspondence, photographs, and interviews. A must for Butler fans.
A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II by Maury Klein (Bloomsbury) - It’s hard to imagine how a book about the sudden wartime awakening of an industrial power could be fast-paced and readable. Yet Klein pulls it off. His coverage of the organization of American institutional, economic, military, and governmental might for WWII is both sobering and inspiring—the former because of the obstacles to achieving wartime preparedness, the latter for the eventual success of the mobilization.
The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury, and Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat by Meg Lukens Noonan (Random/Spiegel & Grau) - What does it take to produce a $50,000 overcoat? For the coat’s creator, John H. Cutler, a fourth-generation tailor in Sydney, it was “‘the ultimate expression of the bespoke tailor’s art.’” The photograph on Cutler’s Web site looked to journalist Noonan’s untutored eye like something off the Macy’s menswear clearance rack, but it piqued her curiosity and inspired her to research the coat’s origins. Noonan’s lively journey begins in the Peruvian mountains, and is followed by stops in Florence, Yorkshire, and Birmingham.
The Poisoned Pilgrim by Oliver Potzsch, trans. from the German by Lee Chadeayne (HMH/Mariner) - Set in Bavaria in 1666, Pötzsch’s stellar fourth Hangman’s Daughter mystery features three unlikely sleuths: hangman Jakob Kuisl; his daughter, Magdalena; and Magdalena’s husband, Simon Fronweiser, a “bathhouse medicus” in the town of Schongau. Magdalena and Simon, the parents of two boys, leave the children with Magdalena’s parents in order to undertake a pilgrimage to the monastery at Andechs—a trip that turns out to be anything but spiritual.
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff (Doubleday) - In this novel, written in verse, each brief chapter introduces a different character, living in a different era, sometimes in a different city. The effect is mesmerizing, as both the cadence of the couplets and the connections that link the characters become more established and familiar. Rakoff, who died in the summer of 2012, combines his wit and his gravity for an unexpected blend of uncomfortable rhymes that build into recognizable stories.
Brilliance by Marcus Sakey (Amazon/Thomas & Mercer) - Sakey paints a near future too close for comfort in this stunning thriller, the first in a projected series. About 1% of American children born after 1986—known as abnorms, among other names—are particularly brilliant. A tiny percentage of these are problematic, like Erik Epstein, who understood stock market movements so well he made a fortune that led to the permanent closing of the New York Stock Exchange in 2011.
The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza, trans. from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (FSG) - This massive book, unpublished when Sapienza died in 1996, first printed in a limited edition spearheaded by a friend, then reprinted to become a sensation in France, finally appears in English. It’s easy to see why it didn’t sell initially and why it has such passionate promoters now: the story of Modesta, born poor in Sicily in 1900, passionate reader, lover of men and women, and fighter against fascism and patriarchy, is a stirring and potentially shocking tale of a woman’s awakening. Sapienza’s singular book compels.