In Brief

Recommended by California Review of Books editors

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

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