A grisly set of books in this week’s recommended reading: murderers, thieves, witches and disease. The type of pick-me-ups you’d expect in the first list of staff suggestions of summer!
Chaos Kings by Scott Patterson
There’s no doubt that our world has gotten more extreme. Pandemics, climate change, superpower rivalries, cyberattacks, political radicalization—virtually, everywhere we look there is mayhem bearing down on us, putting trillions of assets at risk.
And at least two factions have formed around how to respond. In Chaos Kings, Scott Patterson depicts how one faction, led by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, bestselling author of The Black Swan, believes humans can never see the big disaster coming. In their view, extreme events—so-called Black Swans—while inevitable, will always catch us by surprise. In 2007, Taleb’s longtime collaborator, Mark Spitznagel, launched the Universa hedge fund, which would go on to make billions protecting investors against unforeseen chaos in the market.
A second faction, which relies on complex formulas, believes looming chaos can be detected. Chief among these risk prognosticators is Didier Sornette, a colorful French mathematician who enjoys riding his motorcycle at speeds in excess of 170 miles per hour. When Sornette looks out from what he calls his Financial Crisis Observatory in Zurich, Switzerland, what he sees are Dragon Kings—punishing events that are unlikely to occur but have probabilities that can be predicted…and defended against.
Which faction is right? All of our financial futures may depend on the answer.
Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan
Bombay, New Year’s Eve, 1949
As India celebrates the arrival of a momentous new decade, Inspector Persis Wadia stands vigil in the basement of Malabar House, home to the city’s most unwanted unit of police officers. Six months after joining the force she remains India’s first female police detective, mistrusted, sidelined and now consigned to the midnight shift.
And so, when the phone rings to report the murder of prominent English diplomat Sir James Herriot, the country’s most sensational case falls into her lap.
As 1950 dawns and India prepares to become the world’s largest republic, Persis, accompanied by Scotland Yard criminalist Archie Blackfinch, finds herself investigating a case that is becoming more political by the second. Navigating a country and society in turmoil, Persis, smart, stubborn and untested in the crucible of male hostility that surrounds her, must find a way to solve the murder – whatever the cost.
Homelands by Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash, Europe’s “historian of the present,” has been “breathing Europe” for the last half century. In Homelands he embarks on a journey in time and space around the postwar continent, drawing on his own notes from many great events, giving vivid firsthand accounts of its leading actors, revisiting the places where its history was made, and recalling its triumphs and tragedies through their imprint on the present.
Garton Ash offers an account of events as seen from the ground—history illustrated by memoir. He describes how Europe emerged from wartime devastation to rebuild, to triumph with the fall of the Berlin Wall, to democratize and unite. And then to falter. It is a singular history of a period of unprecedented progress along with a clear-eyed account of how so much went wrong, from the financial crisis of 2008 to the war in Ukraine. From the pen of someone who, in spite of Brexit, emphatically describes himself as an English European, this is both a tour d’horizon and a tour de force.
The Ruin of All Witches by Malcolm Gaskill
In Springfield, Massachusetts in 1651, peculiar things begin to happen. Precious food spoils, livestock ails, property vanishes, and people suffer convulsions as if possessed by demons. A woman is seen wading through the swamp like a lost soul. Disturbing dreams and visions proliferate. Children sicken and die. As tensions rise, rumours spread of witches and heretics and the community becomes tangled in a web of distrust, resentment and denunciation. The finger of suspicion soon falls on a young couple with two small children: the prickly brickmaker, Hugh Parsons, and his troubled wife, Mary.
Drawing on rich, previously unexplored source material, Malcolm Gaskill vividly evokes a strange past, one where lives were steeped in the divine and the diabolic, in omens, curses and enchantments. The Ruin of All Witches captures an entire society caught in agonized transition between superstition and enlightenment, tradition and innovation.
William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, A Radical Retelling by Cliff Cardinal
Directions to Myself by Heidi Julavits
One summer Heidi Julavits sees her son silhouetted by the sun and notices he is at the threshold of what she calls “the end times of childhood.” When did this happen, she asks herself. Who is my son becoming—and what qualifies me to be his guide?
The next four years feel like uncharted waters. Rape allegations rock the university campus where Julavits teaches, unleashing questions of justice and accountability, as well as education and prevention. She begins to wonder how to prepare her son to be the best possible citizen of the world he’s about to enter. And what she must learn about herself to responsibly steer him.
Looking back to her childhood in Maine, where she and her family often navigated the tricky coastline in a small boat, relying on a decades-old nautical guide, Julavits takes us on an intellectual navigation of the self. Throughout, she intertwines her internal analysis with a wide-ranging exploration of what it means to raise a child in a time full of contradictions and moral complexity. Using the past and present as points of orientation, Directions to Myself examines the messy minutiae of family life alongside knottier questions of politics and gender. Through it all, Julavits discovers the beauty and the peril of telling stories as a way to locate ourselves and help others find us.
Intimate, rigorous, and refreshingly unsentimental, Directions to Myself cements Julavits’s reputation as one of the most shrewdly innovative nonfiction writers at work today.
At the Edge of the Woods by Kathryn Bromwich
Laura lives alone in a cabin deep within the Italian Alps, making her living translating medical documents and tutoring the children of affluent locals. She spends her days climbing the mountains outside her door and exploring the woods, and when she must venture into the small, conservative town for supplies, she’s met with curious stares and wariness. Laura begins seeing a bartender, who alerts her to the villagers’ uncertainties. Then late one night there is a knock on the door, and on the other side stands someone from her past who has finally found her. In beguiling, lyrical prose, the mystery surrounding why Laura has absconded to this remote corner of the Alps comes into focus, while the villagers grow leery of the woman in the cabin and of her increasingly odd behavior. A few decide to take matters into their own hands, to free themselves from the malevolent forces of the strega who lives amongst them.
With its dexterity and appreciation for the natural world, its slow-burn tension and thematic considerations of illness, femininity and alienation, At the Edge of the Woods calls to mind the work of Richard Powers, Claire-Louise Bennett and Shirley Jackson, while revealing Kathryn Bromwich as a spectacular and singular talent.
The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts by Soraya Palmer
Sisters Zora and Sasha Porter are drifting apart. Bearing witness to their father’s violence and their mother’s worsening illness, an unsettled Zora escapes into her journal, dreaming of being a writer, while Sasha discovers sex and chest binding, spending more time with her new girlfriend than at home.
But the sisters, like their parents, must come together to answer to something more ancient and powerful than they know—and reckon with a family secret buried in the past. A tale told from the perspective of a mischievous narrator, featuring the Rolling Calf who haunts butchers, Mama Dglo who lives in the ocean, a vain tiger, and an outsmarted snake, The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts is set in a world as alive and unpredictable as Helen Oyeyemi’s.
Telling of the love between sisters who don’t always see eye to eye, this extraordinary debut novel is a celebration of the power of stories, asking, What happens to us when our stories are erased? Do we disappear? Or do we come back haunting?
The Art Thief by Michael Finkel
For centuries, works of art have been stolen in countless ways from all over the world, but no one has been quite as successful at it as the master thief Stéphane Breitwieser. Carrying out more than two hundred heists over nearly eight years—in museums and cathedrals all over Europe—Breitwieser, along with his girlfriend who worked as his lookout, stole more than three hundred objects, until it all fell apart in spectacular fashion.
In The Art Thief, Michael Finkel brings us into Breitwieser’s strange and fascinating world. Unlike most thieves, Breitwieser never stole for money. Instead, he displayed all his treasures in a pair of secret rooms where he could admire them to his heart’s content. Possessed of a remarkable athleticism and an innate ability to circumvent practically any security system, Breitwieser managed to pull off a breathtaking number of audacious thefts. Yet these strange talents bred a growing disregard for risk and an addict’s need to score, leading Breitwieser to ignore his girlfriend’s pleas to stop—until one final act of hubris brought everything crashing down.
This is a riveting story of art, crime, love, and an insatiable hunger to possess beauty at any cost.
The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller
In the face of a pandemic, an unprepared world scrambles to escape the mysterious disease causing sensory damage, nerve loss, and, in most cases, death. Neffy, a disgraced and desperately indebted twenty-seven-year-old marine biologist, registers for an experimental vaccine trial in London—perhaps humanity’s last hope for a cure. Though isolated from the chaos outside, she and the other volunteers—Rachel, Leon, Yahiko, and Piper—cannot hide from the mistakes that led them there.
As London descends into chaos outside the hospital windows, Neffy befriends Leon, who before the pandemic had been working on a controversial technology that allows users to revisit their memories. She withdraws into projections of her past—a childhood bisected by divorce, a recent love affair, her obsessive research with octopuses, and the one mistake that ended her career. The lines between past, present, and future begin to blur, and Neffy is left with defining questions: Who can she trust? Why can’t she forgive herself? How should she live, if she survives?
Claire Fuller’s The Memory of Animals is an ambitious, deeply imagined work of survival and suspense, grief and hope, consequences and connectedness that asks what truly defines us—and to what lengths we will go to rescue ourselves and those we love.