Happy January everyone! Here are some of the titles we were reading over our winter break. There’s a little bit of music, a little bit of love, some existential contemplations, and a number of plagues.
The Lumumba Plot by Stuart A. Reid
It was supposed to be a moment of great optimism, a cause for jubilation. The Congo was at last being set free from Belgium—one of seventeen countries to gain independence in 1960 from ruling European powers. At the helm as prime minister was charismatic nationalist Patrice Lumumba. Just days after the handover, however, the Congo’s new army mutinied, Belgian forces intervened, and Lumumba turned to the United Nations for help in saving his newborn nation from what the press was already calling “the Congo crisis.” Dag Hammarskjöld, the tidy Swede serving as UN secretary-general, quickly arranged the organization’s biggest peacekeeping mission in history. But chaos was still spreading. Frustrated with the fecklessness of the UN and spurned by the United States, Lumumba then approached the Soviets for help—an appeal that set off alarm bells at the CIA. To forestall the spread of Communism in Africa, the CIA sent word to its station chief in the Congo, Larry Devlin: Lumumba had to go.
Within a year, everything would unravel. The CIA plot to murder Lumumba would ﬁzzle out, but he would be deposed in a CIA-backed coup, transferred to enemy territory in a CIA-approved operation, and shot dead by Congolese assassins. Hammarskjöld, too, would die, in a mysterious plane crash en route to negotiate a cease-ﬁre with the Congo’s rebellious southeast. And a young, ambitious military officer named Joseph Mobutu, who had once sworn fealty to Lumumba, would seize power with U.S. help and misrule the country for more than three decades. For the Congolese people, the events of 1960–61 represented the opening chapter of a long horror story. For the U.S. government, however, they provided a playbook for future interventions.
This Plague of Souls by Mike McCormack
Nealon returns from prison to his house in the West of Ireland to find it empty. No heat or light, no sign of his wife or child. It is as if the world has forgotten or erased him. Then he starts getting calls from a man who claims to know what’s happened to his family-a man who’ll tell Nealon all he needs to know in return for a single meeting.
In a hotel lobby, in the shadow of an unfolding terrorist attack, Nealon and the man embark on a conversation shot through with secrets and evasions, a verbal game of cat and mouse that leaps from Nealon’s past and childhood to the motives driving a series of international crimes launched against “a world so wretched it can only be redeemed by an act of revenge.” McCormack’s existential noir is a terse and brooding exploration of the connections between rural Ireland and the globalized cruelties of the twentyfirst century. It is also an incisive portrait of a young and struggling family, and a ruthless interrogation of what we owe to those nearest to us, and to the world at large.
A Woman I Know by Suzanne Heywood
Independent filmmaker Mary Haverstick thought she’d stumbled onto the project of a lifetime—a biopic of aviation pioneer Jerrie Cobb, the key figure in a group of extraordinary women who in 1960 passed the same tests as the legendary male astronauts of the Mercury 7 but never went to space. Just as casting was set to begin, Haverstick received a mysterious warning from a government agent; soon she began to suspect that there was more to Jerrie’s story than what met the eye. As she dug deeper, she discovered that Jerrie’s life shadowed that of a mysterious CIA agent named June Cobb, whose espionage career traced an arc of intrigue from the jungles of South America to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, to the communist literary circles in Mexico City—and ultimately into the dark heart of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas.
Haverstick’s attempt to learn the truth directly from Jerrie would plunge her into a cat-and-mouse game that stretched across a decade, deep into a thicket of coded CIA files. As she uncovered a remarkable set of mostly unknown women whose high-stakes intelligence work left its only traces in redacted files, she also found shocking new clues about what really happened at Dealey Plaza in 1963. Offering fresh insight into the Kennedy assassination and a vivid picture of women in midcentury intelligence, A Woman I Know brings to life the astonishing duplicities of the Cold War intelligence game, a world where code names and hidden identities were the lifeblood of spies bent on seeking advantage by any means necessary.
Orbital by Samantha Harvey
A slender novel of epic power, Orbital deftly snapshots one day in the lives of six women and men hurtling through space—not towards the moon or the vast unknown, but around our planet. Selected for one of the last space station missions of its kind before the program is dismantled, these astronauts and cosmonauts—from America, Russia, Italy, Britain, and Japan—have left their lives behind to travel at a speed of over seventeen thousand miles an hour as the earth reels below. We glimpse moments of their earthly lives through brief communications with family, their photos and talismans; we watch them whip up dehydrated meals, float in gravity-free sleep, and exercise in regimented routines to prevent atrophying muscles; we witness them form bonds that will stand between them and utter solitude. Most of all, we are with them as they behold and record their silent blue planet. Their experiences of sixteen sunrises and sunsets and the bright, blinking constellations of the galaxy are at once breathtakingly awesome and surprisingly intimate. So are the marks of civilization far below, encrusted on the planet on which we live.
Profound, contemplative and gorgeous, Orbital is an eloquent meditation on space and a moving elegy to our humanity, environment, and planet.
Nick Drake: The Life by Richard Morton Jack
Three years later, however—having made three well reviewed but low-selling albums—Nick had been overwhelmed by a mysterious mental illness. He returned to live in his family home in rural Warwickshire in 1971, and died in obscurity in 1974, aged just 26.
In the decades since, Nick has become the subject of ever-growing fascination and speculation. Combined sales of his records now stand in the millions, his songs are frequently heard on TV and in films, and he has become one of the most widely known and admired singer-songwriters of his generation.
Nick Drake: The Life is the only biography of Nick to be written with the blessing and involvement of his sister and estate. Drawing on copious original research and new interviews with his family, friends, and musical collaborators, as well as deeply personal archive material unavailable to previous writers—including his father’s diaries, his essays, and private correspondence—this is the most comprehensive and authoritative account possible of Nick’s short and enigmatic life.
Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy
In one of the most acclaimed novels of the year, her first in over a decade, Claire Kilroy takes us deep into the mind of her unforgettable heroine.
Exploring the clash of fierce love for a new life with a seismic change in identity, she vividly realises the tumultuous emotions of a new mother. As her marriage strains and she struggles with questions of love, autonomy creativity and the passing of time, an old friend makes a welcome return – but can he really offer a lifeline to the woman she used to be?
Pathogenesis by Jonathan Kennedy
Over My Dead Body by Greg Melville
The summer before his senior year in college, Greg Melville worked at the cemetery in his hometown, and thanks to hour upon hour of pushing a mower over the grassy acres, he came to realize what a rich story the place told of his town and its history. Thus was born Melville’s lifelong curiosity with how, where, and why we bury and commemorate our dead.
Melville’s Over My Dead Body is a lively (pun intended) and wide-ranging history of cemeteries, places that have mirrored the passing eras in history but also have shaped it. Cemeteries have given birth to landscape architecture and famous parks, as well as influenced architectural styles. They’ve inspired and motivated some of our greatest poets and authors—Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson. They’ve been used as political tools to shift the country’s discourse and as important symbols of the United States’ ambition and reach.
But they are changing and fading. Embalming and burial is incredibly toxic, and while cremations have just recently surpassed burials in popularity, they’re not great for the environment either. Over My Dead Body explores everything about cemeteries—history, sustainability, land use, and more—and what it really means to memorialize.
Kids Run the Show by Delphine de Vigan, trans. Alison Anderson
The first time that Mélanie met Clara, she was stunned by Clara’s sense of authority, and for her part, Clara was struck by Mélanie’s pink, glittery nails, which shimmered in the dark. “She looks like a child,” thought the first. “She looks like a doll,” pondered the second.
These two women, both of the same generation and exposed to the same forms of media throughout their lives, could not be more different in adulthood. Mélanie is a social media superstar, broadcasting her children’s daily lives on a family YouTube channel. Clara is a young police officer, assigned to the case after Mélanie’s daughter Kimmy is abducted.
Traversing the Big Brother generation, the social media influencer generation, and right up to the 2030s, Delphine de Vigan offers a bone-chilling exposé of a world where everything is broadcasted and monetized, even family happiness.
Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido
Stylish, suburban Katherine is just eighteen years old when she is introduced to Professor Jacob Goldman, his rambling home and his large eccentric family, but she is quickly enveloped into their chaotic life. The professor’s wife, Jane, becomes Katherine’s spiritual mother, but it is his older sons, and particularly the beautiful, sulky Roger, who breaks her heart and sets her on a new path. Fleeing to Rome, Katherine remakes herself, but ten years later, she must return, older and wiser, to face the Goldmans once more.
In this funny and heartwarming novel, Barbara Trapido introduces an unforgettable main character and debuts the witty, compelling voice that authors from Elizabeth Gilbert to Maria Semple and Lauren Groff rave about.