Out Now: TURNING by Jessica J. Lee (Virago)

LeeJJ-TurningUKPBThis title is a bit unusual for CR, but I wanted to share the great cover for the UK paperback edition of Jessica J. Lee’s Turning, published by Virago. Full disclosure, it is by a friend of mine, but I think some readers of CR might be interested in checking it out — especially if they’re looking for something a bit different. Here’s the synopsis:

“The water slips over me like cool silk. The intimacy of touch uninhibited, rising around my legs, over my waist, up to my collarbone. When I throw back my head and relax, the lake runs into my ears. The sound of it is a muffled roar, the vibration of the body amplified by water, every sound felt as if in slow motion…” Summer swimming… but Jessica Lee – Canadian, Chinese and British — swims through all four seasons and especially loves the winter. “I long for the ice. The sharp cut of freezing water on my feet. The immeasurable black of the lake at its coldest. Swimming then means cold, and pain, and elation.”

At the age of twenty-eight, Jessica Lee, who grew up in Canada and lived in London, finds herself in Berlin. Alone. Lonely, with lowered spirits thanks to some family history and a broken heart, she is there, ostensibly, to write a thesis. And though that is what she does daily, what increasingly occupies her is swimming. So she makes a decision that she believes will win her back her confidence and independence: she will swim fifty-two of the lakes around Berlin, no matter what the weather or season. She is aware that this particular landscape is not without its own ghosts and history.

This is the story of a beautiful obsession: of the thrill of a still, turquoise lake, of cracking the ice before submerging, of floating under blue skies, of tangled weeds and murkiness, of cool, fresh, spring swimming — of facing past fears of near drowning and of breaking free.

When she completes her year of swimming Jessica finds she has new strength, and she has also found friends and has gained some understanding of how the landscape both haunts and holds us.

This book is for everyone who loves swimming, who wishes they could push themselves beyond caution, who understands the deep pleasure of using their body’s strength, who knows what it is to allow oneself to abandon all thought and float home to the surface.

Turning is out now, published by Virago in the UK, Penguin Random House in Canada, and Berlin/Piper in Germany.

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Quick Review: THE LIFE OF ANDREW JACKSON by Robert V. Remini (Harper)

ReminiRV-LifeOfAndrewJacksonUSA very useful, infuriating single-volume biography of the seventh president

Robert V. Remini’s prize-winning, three-volume biography Life of Andrew Jackson won the National Book Award on its completion in 1984 and is recognized as one of the greatest lives of a U.S. President. In this meticulously crafted single-volume abridgment, Remini captures the essence of the life and career of the seventh president of the United States. As president, from 1829-1837, Jackson was a significant force in the nations’s expansion, the growth of presidential power, and the transition from republicanism to democracy.

Jackson is a highly controversial figure who is undergoing historical reconsideration today. He is known as spurring the emergence of the modern American political division of Republican and Democractic parties, for the infamous Indian removal on the Trail of Tears, and for his brave victory against the British as Major General at the Battle of New Orleans.

Never an apologist, Remini portrays Jackson as a foreceful, sometimes tragic, hero — a man whose strength and flaws were larger than life, a president whose conviction provided the nation with one of the most influential, colorful, and controversial administrations in our history.

Robert V. Remini is considered one of the preeminent scholars of Andrew Jackson and his times. His three-volume biography of Jackson won the National Book Award and many think of it as one of the best, substantial biographies of any president. In The Life of Andrew Jackson, he has written a comprehensive, (relatively) briskly paced biography. However, the book suffers from one major flaw that coloured almost everything Remini included within. Continue reading

Upcoming: HEIRS OF THE FOUNDERS by H.W. Brands (Doubleday)

BrandsHW-HeirsToTheFoundersUSIn H.W. Brands‘s latest book, the acclaimed historian turns his attention to the three men whose political careers had lasting impact on the United States after the Founding generation had left the stage: Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster. (Sort of — they were all active during some of the founding administrations, but they outlasted them all.) As contemporary politics devolves into horrifying farce, there has rarely been a better time in which to revisit the early years of American politics: messy, contentious, often violent, and yet fascinating. Heirs to the Founders is due to be published by Doubleday in November 2018 (in North America and in the UK). Here’s the official synopsis:

The riveting story of how America’s second generation of political giants — Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun — battled to complete the unfinished work of the Founding Fathers and decide the shape of our democracy.

In the early days of the nineteenth century, three young men strode onto the national stage, elected to Congress at a moment when the Founding Fathers were beginning to retire to their farms. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, a champion orator known for his eloquence, spoke for the North and its business class. Henry Clay of Kentucky, as dashing as he was ambitious, embodied the hopes of the rising West. South Carolina’s John Calhoun, with piercing eyes and an even more piercing intellect, defended the South and slavery.

Together this second generation of American founders took the country to war, battled one another for the presidency, and tasked themselves with finishing the work the Founders had left undone. Above all, they sought to remedy the two glaring flaws in the Constitution: its fudge on where authority ultimately rested, with the states or the nation; and its unwillingness to address the essential incompatibility of republicanism and slavery. They wrestled with these issues for four decades, arguing bitterly and hammering out political compromises that held the union together, but only just. Then, in 1850, when California moved to join the union as a free state, “the three great men of America” had one last chance to save the country from the real risk of civil war. But by then they were never further apart.

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Excerpt: THE FRIGHTENERS by Peter Laws (Icon Books)

LawsP-TheFrightenersUKI hadn’t heard of Peter Laws‘s new book before the publicist reached out to me. It is the story of a minister’s investigation into our fascination with the macabre, scary and horrific. I thought it sounded quite interesting, and so today Icon Books have allowed me to share with you an excerpt from The Frighteners. But first, here’s the synopsis:

The Frighteners follows the quest of Peter Laws, a Baptist minister with a penchant for the macabre, to understand why so many people love things that are spooky, morbid and downright repellent. He meets vampires, hunts werewolves in Hull, talks to a man who has slept on a mortuary slab to help him deal with a diagnosis, and is chased by a chainsaw-wielding maniac through a farmhouse full of hanging bodies.

Staring into the darkness of a Transylvanian night, he asks: What is it that makes millions of people seek to be disgusted and freaked out? And, in a world that worships rationality and points an accusing finger at violent video games and gruesome films, can an interest in horror culture actually give us safe ways to confront our mortality? Might it even have power to re-enchant our jaded world?

Grab your crucifixes, pack the silver bullets, and join the Sinister Minister on his romp into our morbid curiosities.

Read on for an excerpt from the chapter “Sisters”…

Continue reading

Upcoming: THE RISE OF ANDREW JACKSON by David S. Heidler & Jeanne T. Heidler (Basic Books)

Heidler-RiseOfAndrewJacksonUSIn October, Basic Books are due to publish the new book by David S. and Jeanne T. HeidlerThe Rise of Andrew Jackson. I have mixed feelings about Andrew Jackson — he was a towering, important figure during one of my favourite periods of American history, whose election helped to fundamentally alter the way presidential elections are conducted.

Generally, though, I have found it to be the case that if you’ve read one book about Jackson, you’ve read them all. Many of his papers were lost in a fire at the Hermitage, and he was by no means as prolific as many of his peers and other presidents. I am not Jackson’s biggest fan. However, the Heidlers’ new book caught my attention because of its focus on the propagandists and journalists who helped Jackson polish his image, to scrub his decidedly unattractive personal history and general manner.

The story of Andrew Jackson’s improbable ascent to the White House, centered on the handlers and propagandists who made it possible

Andrew Jackson was volatile and prone to violence, and well into his forties his sole claim on the public’s affections derived from his victory in a thirty-minute battle at New Orleans in early 1815. Yet those in his immediate circle believed he was a great man who should be president of the United States.

Jackson’s election in 1828 is usually viewed as a result of the expansion of democracy. Historians David and Jeanne Heidler argue that he actually owed his victory to his closest supporters, who wrote hagiographies of him, founded newspapers to savage his enemies, and built a political network that was always on message. In transforming a difficult man into a paragon of republican virtue, the Jacksonites exploded the old order and created a mode of electioneering that has been mimicked ever since.

I’m really looking forward to reading The Rise of Andrew Jackson. The book is published by Basic Books in late October 2018, and will be available in the UK. The Heidlers are also the authors of Henry Clay: The Essential American, among others.

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Upcoming: THESE TRUTHS by Jill Lepore (W.W. Norton)

LeporeJ-TheseTruthsUSHCJill Lepore is one of my favourite historians. Ever since discovering her work in the New Yorker, I have eagerly read anything of hers I could get my hands on (not always easy, when I lived in the UK). The Story of America (Princeton University Press) is one of my favourite non-fiction books, and a must for anyone interested in reading about the evolution of storytelling in, and the story of the United States. Lepore is also the author of the excellent The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Joe Gould’s Teeth and New York Burning (among others).

This year, W. W. Norton is due to publish Lepore’s latest book: a substantial, single-volume history of the United States. Here’s the synopsis for These Truths:

In the most ambitious one-volume American history in decades, award-winning historian Jill Lepore offers a magisterial account of the origins and rise of a divided nation.

The American experiment rests on three ideas — “these truths,” Jefferson called them — political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. And it rests, too, “on a dedication to inquiry, fearless and unflinching,” writes Jill Lepore in a groundbreaking investigation into the American past that places truth itself at the center of the nation’s history. In riveting prose, These Truthstells the story of America, beginning in 1492, to ask whether the course of events has proven the nation’s founding truths, or belied them. “A nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history,” Lepore writes, finding meaning in those very contradictions as she weaves American history into a majestic tapestry of faith and hope, of peril and prosperity, of technological progress and moral anguish. A spellbinding chronicle filled with arresting sketches of Americans from John Winthrop and Frederick Douglass to Pauli Murray and Phyllis Schlafly, These Truths offers an authoritative new history of a great, and greatly troubled, nation.

I’m really looking forward to reading this. These Truths is published by W. W. Norton in September 2018 (in North America and the UK).

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New Colson Whitehead UK Editions

Thanks to the runaway success of Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel The Underground Railroad, his previous books The Intuitionist, Colossus of New York and Apex Hides the Hurt are getting new UK editions, published by Fleet.

WhiteheadC-IntuitionistUKLet’s take them in publication order. First up is The Intuitionist, which is out now:

Verticality, architectural and social, is at the heart of Colson Whitehead’s first novel that takes place in an unnamed high-rise city that combines twenty-first-century engineering feats with nineteenth-century pork-barrel politics. Elevators are the technological expression of the vertical ideal, and Lila Mae Watson, the city’s first black female elevator inspector, is its embattled token of upward mobility.When Number Eleven of the newly completed Fanny Briggs Memorial Building goes into deadly free-fall just hours after Lila Mae has signed off on it, using the controversial “Intuitionist” method of ascertaining elevator safety, both Intuitionists and Empiricists recognize the set-up, but may be willing to let Lila Mae take the fall in an election year.

As Lila Mae strives to exonerate herself in this urgent adventure full of government spies, underworld hit men, and seductive double agents, behind the action, always, is the Idea. Lila Mae’s quest is mysteriously entwined with existence of heretofore lost writings by James Fulton, father of Intuitionism, a giant of vertical thought. If she is able to find and reveal his plan for the perfect, next-generation elevator, the city as it now exists may instantly become obsolescent.

WhiteheadC-ColossusOfNewYorkUKNext up we have The Colossus of New York, which was published yesterday. Here’s the synopsis:

Here is a literary love song that will entrance anyone who has lived in — or spent time — in the greatest of American cities.

A masterful evocation of the city that never sleeps, The Colossus of New York captures the city’s inner and outer landscapes in a series of vignettes, meditations, and personal memories. Colson Whitehead conveys with almost uncanny immediacy the feelings and thoughts of longtime residents and of newcomers who dream of making it their home; of those who have conquered its challenges; and of those who struggle against its cruelties.

Whitehead’s style is as multilayered and multifarious as New York itself: Switching from third person, to first person, to second person, he weaves individual voices into a jazzy musical composition that perfectly reflects the way we experience the city. There is a funny, knowing riff on what it feels like to arrive in New York for the first time; a lyrical meditation on how the city is transformed by an unexpected rain shower; and a wry look at the ferocious battle that is commuting. The plaintive notes of the lonely and dispossessed resound in one passage, while another captures those magical moments when the city seems to be talking directly to you, inviting you to become one with its rhythms.

The Colossus of New York is a remarkable portrait of life in the big city. Ambitious in scope, gemlike in its details, it is at once an unparalleled tribute to New York and the ideal introduction to one of the most exciting writers working today.

WhiteheadC-ApexHidesTheHurtUKAnd finally, due out at the beginning of next month, the novel Apex Hides the Hurt:

A brisk, comic tour de force about identity, history, and the adhesive bandage industry.

The town of Winthrop has decided it needs a new name. The resident software millionaire wants to call it New Prospera; the mayor wants to return to the original choice of the founding black settlers; and the town’s aristocracy sees no reason to change the name at all. What they need, they realize, is a nomenclature consultant.

And, it turns out, the consultant needs them. But in a culture overwhelmed by marketing, the name is everything and our hero’s efforts may result in not just a new name for the town but a new and subtler truth about it as well.

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