In Brief

Recommended by California Review of Books editors

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. The Dictionary of Lost Words is the engaging, layered and ambitious first novel from Pip Williams, set in Oxford and unfolding over three-quarters of a turbulent century, when Britain ruled supreme and patriarchy reigned. Williams succeeds brilliantly in bringing setting and period to life, interweaving a cast of historical and fictional characters. Rich with themes and relationships, with the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary as its axis, and a female protagonist with a passion for words and their many meanings, this is a very worthwhile read. —BT

Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson. Reading the story of how any accomplished writer developed her aesthetic sense is usually rewarding, but when that writer is someone as talented as Margo Jefferson, the experience is all the more gripping. How does a young Black woman growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s in a household of relative privilege, often interacting with her white peers, create a sense of self through art? The answer is through the study of and passion for an eclectic group of influences, from Ella Fitzgerald to Katherine Mansfield, from Willa Cather to Nina Simone. At one point Jefferson asks, “Must I be stranded between Gertrude Rainey and Sylvia Plath?” The answer, of course, is no, but on balance, it turns out that the hinterland between Black and white culture isn’t necessarily a bad place to be.—DS

Trust by Hernan Diaz. When you finish reading the exquisite short novel Bonds by fictional author Harold Vanner, it’s hard to imagine where Diaz might go with his story, but the three narratives that follow–another of which is the length of a short novel–amplify, undercut, rewrite and rewire the opening section. Imagine Don DeLillo, at his peak, collaborating with Jorge Luis Borges, at his, and you’ll have an inkling of what transpires in one of the year’s most ambitious novels. Just as vivid a character as the robber baron and his wife, who are the centerpiece of the novel, is Ida Partenza, the now aged novelist who participated in the creation of their images.—DS

Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück. What do you do after you win the Nobel Prize in Literature? The answer for Louise Glück is to return to the fabulist voice that has animated so much of her poetry. At 42 pages, Winter Recipes from the Collective is brief, but it feels complete. Multipage sequences are punctuated by shorter poems, which creates a kind of narrative rhythm, even when the narrative itself is oblique. While the book’s deepest dives are into the mysteries of aging, Glück is also concerned with the world those of us who are passing from it will leave behind. In “A Children’s Story” she writes: “Who can speak of the future? Nobody knows anything about the future, / even the planets do not know. / But the princesses will have to live in it. / What a sad day it has become.” —DS

Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert. For those of us following the popular literature on our planet’s impending catastrophe, it’s astonishing how quickly books on climate change have moved from offering hope and solutions to the de facto assumption that it’s too late to do much more than try and survive what’s ahead without going extinct ourselves. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in her new book, “Cutting emissions is at once absolutely essential and insufficient. Were we to halve emissions—a step that would entail rebuilding much of the world’s infrastructure—CO2 levels wouldn’t drop; they’d simply rise less quickly.” Kolbert is a reporter for The New Yorker, and the book’s three chapters—on the lasting harm we have caused our rivers and watershed; the extravagant measures being taken to save the pupfish of Devils Hole, Nevada; and some ingenious, if often farfetched, attempts at climate repair—read like extended pieces in that magazine. While Under a White Sky is a book about problem-solving, it never shies away from the ugly truth that we are the ones who created those problems. —DS

Capital by John Lanchester. Discovering a master storyteller is a singular delight. I recently read — devoured over several days is more accurate — the novel Capital by John Lanchester and found it to be one of the most satisfying fictional reads I’ve experienced in a good while. I was completely pulled into this big, intricate tale which primarily unfolds on one residential street in London, Pepys Road, and among those who call it home. Lanchester gets deep into the minds and hearts of multiple characters, from a wealthy City of London banker to an elderly widow who has lived her entire life on Pepys Road, to a teenage football phenom from Senegal. Lanchester’s wit, eye for detail and sharp social observations, combined with his skill at resolving the problems and dilemmas he sets for his characters make Capital a wonderful read. —BT

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. Between Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and Jojo Moyes’s The Giver of Stars, packhorse librarians seem to be having a moment in historical fiction. Under the 1930’s WPA program, packhorse librarians, usually women, rode rural trails to deliver books (and literacy) to the Appalachian poor. Richardson’s protagonist, Cussy Mary Carter, is inspired by the historical Fugates, “the Blue People of Kentucky.” While Caucasian, Cussy Mary has blue skin due to an extremely rare blood disorder, and is treated as “colored” by the community in which brutal poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, and ignorance abound (even among the other librarians). Written with dialogue in heavy dialect, The Book Woman is a fairytale set in the deepest crevices of rural America, neither long ago nor far away.—CY

The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World by Patrik Svensson. A relatively unknown Swedish journalist writes an international bestseller about eels—it sounds like the punchline to some avant-garde joke, but The Book of Eels lives up to its hype. Partly a memoir about the author’s relationship with his taciturn father, who imbued him with a respect for, not to say obsession with, eels, Svensson delivers pretty much what his title promises: a book about eels. Although rife with good humor and a plethora of fanciful eel-related arcana, the book ends on a somber note, with eels on the brink of extinction “while decisions about what do…are punted down the road. Until we know more. Or until there’s nothing left to know.”—DS

Painting Edo: Selections from the Feinberg Collection of Japanese Art by Rachel Saunders and Yukio Lippit. This richly illustrated book was published to accompany an exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums that opened on February 14, 2020, and closed not long afterwards. While the exhibition was later extended through June of 2021, Painting Edo is probably as close to viewing the exhibition as most people will get. The essays by Lippit and Saunders are about what you would expect: scholarly, detailed, deeply informative and at times a little dry. It is for the images, of course, that one seeks out a book like this, and they are stunning. Exquisitely rendered trees, flowers and birds crowd the pages, along with monks, warriors and idealized landscapes of steep mountains and waterfalls. I encountered the book during the first months of the pandemic, and it provided a welcome retreat from the fears and uncertainties of the real world.—DS

A Horse in My Suitcase by John Holman. John Holman may not have hauled an actual horse in his suitcase when he emigrated from Bowshots Farm in England to Australia in 1969, but he did carry the memory of horses, his extended family, and a very particular landscape that was on the brink of change as he departed. Through his delightful memoir, A Horse in my Suitcase, Holman recollects in vivid detail his childhood and early adolescence in southern England, an indelible place he deeply loved and can never entirely leave behind. This memoir is full of hilarious anecdotes and family lore, plus some remarkable photographs of a bygone era. —BT

L.A. Weather by María Amparo Escandón. In the space of a year the Alvarado family suffers the following: a near drowning, a marital estrangement, three divorces, a brain tumor, a wildfire mandatory evacuation, and the loss of an almond orchard. Maria Amparo Escandon’s third novel, L.A. Weather, captures some of the wondrous cultural diversity of Los Angeles as well as many of its hazards and idiosyncrasies: wildfire, flood, drought, traffic, hyper-consumerism, gentrification. As the Alvarados will attest, life in Los Angeles isn’t always filled with sunshine and swaying palm trees, nor is it about Hollywood glitz and shimmering Malibu beaches. –BT 

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O’Toole. We Don’t Know Ourselves gets off to a great start; it feels like that extraordinarily rare thing: a book that seamlessly combines personal and national history. However, as it progresses, We Don’t Know Ourselves may, for the casual reader, sometimes feel as though it becomes lost in the weeds of data and statistics, as in this note on rural Ireland’s desire to join the European Economic Community: “the official white paper estimated that per capita incomes in farming would increase by over 150 per cent by 1978. (They actually rose by 112 per cent.)” However, when O’Toole is telling stories, whether it be about his own life growing up in suburban Dublin, or about the referendum to remove the constitutional ban on abortion, We Don’t Know Ourselves is a gripping read.—DS

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. This is a big, ambitious novel, and it takes a while to get going. In large measure, that’s because Doerr introduces us to six different narratives. There’s the spaceship Argos zooming towards a habitable planet after Earth’s collapse, then an invented story, “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” by a real ancient Greek writer. Add to that a contemporary shooting in the made-up town of Lakeport, Idaho, home to two of the protagonists, Seymour and Zeno. However, when Doerr throws in two more main characters, Omeir and Anna, who live during the fall of Constantinople in 1453, he’s juggling a lot of balls, and keeping up with everyone can feel like a bit of a slog. Fortunately, halfway through the book, everything starts to fall in place, and as we hear again and again about libraries and the passage of time and the need to protect the natural world and love and forgive our fellow humans, Cloud Cuckoo Land becomes that rare thing: a novel you don’t want to end.—DS

Land of Big Numbers: Stories by Te-Ping Chen.  With news coverage of Xi Jinping’s authoritarian China becoming increasingly opaque, any glimpses into the lives of ordinary Chinese people are all the more welcome. Te-Ping Chen, a Fulbright Fellow in China and a former China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, provides those glimpses, and more, in stories with subjects ranging from student dissidents to income inequality to Kafkaesque bureaucracy, although the commentary on Chinese society is largely implicit. Instead, each story achieves its magic by focusing on local details, like “the shops with drab pasteboard signs…[with] clues to their wares: a picture of tooth and nails, another of sheep standing before a pot,” and, above all, on memorable characters. An excellent debut collection.—DS

Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino.  What might have happened if Donald Trump’s Big Lie had succeeded? We get a feeling for the possible consequences on a local and historical level in David Zucchino’s retelling of the massacre and exile of the black middle-class at the end of Reconstruction in what had been one of the South’s most progressive cities. A cruel precursor to Tulsa in 1921, the slaughter in Wilmington is similarly notable for the effective way it was quickly covered up by the white press—in both the South and North. Wilmington’s Lie should be required reading for every power-hungry Republican bent on quashing equity and voting rights. Then again, maybe not. Rather than viewing the white riots of 1898 as a warning, they might see them as a blueprint for the future.—DS

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel.  Like Station Eleven, St. John Mandel’s previous novel, set in a mostly people-less post-pandemic world, The Glass Hotel, which centers around a Bernie Madoff-like figure and those connected to him, is full of loss and poor decisions. While the financial crisis of 2007-2008 doesn’t have quite the weight of catastrophic global depopulation, St. John Mandel skillfully recreates the pain and fear felt by those whose life savings were wiped out by the greed, deceit and carelessness of others. Despite its bleak subject matter, The Glass Hotel is a page-turner, with plenty of moments where the characters display genuine warmth, and sometimes even grace.—DS

Oblivion Banjo by Charles Wright. This doorstop of a book, subtitled, The Poetry of Charles Wright, is somewhere between a selected and collected poems, although it feels closer to the latter.  Granted, the late U.S. Poet Laureate frequently plies the same ground using the same maneuvers, but for fans like me, that’s actually a good thing. As he sits in his backyard—in coastal California or rural Virginia—Wright meditates again and again on history and religion, the great Chinese poets and his time spent in Italy.  All the while, he is careful to take careful note of his immediate surroundings: “Surf sounds in the palm tree, / Susurrations, the wind / making a big move from the west” and “Dogwood electrified and lit from within by April afternoon late-light.”—DS

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross. After reading New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s two previous books–The Rest is Noise and Listen to This–I was convinced that I could never get enough of his smart, insightful and downright educational writing. However, Wagnerism proves me wrong. It’s not that Ross’s writing has dipped, but, as the book’s subtitle suggests, his subject matter has changed. Rather than explaining and enthusing about music, Ross has tasked himself with following the influence of Wagner’s operas across time and continents. While I admire Ross’s ambition in covering everything from “Esoteric, Decadent and Satanic Wager” to “Jewish and Black Wagner” to “The First World War and Hitler’s Youth,” I would love to have read more about the music itself, no matter how fully it has been investigated by previous critics. —DS