Two ancient enemies can be found in this week’s selection of books we’ve recently enjoyed, alongside an ermine, a horse, and a host of family drama.
What the Ermine Saw by Eden Collinsworth
Five hundred and thirty years ago, a young woman sat before a Grecian-nosed artist known as Leonardo da Vinci. Her name was Cecilia Gallerani, and she was the young mistress of Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan. Sforza was a brutal and clever man who was mindful that Leonardo’s genius would not only capture Cecilia’s beguiling beauty but also reflect the grandeur of his title. But when the portrait was finished, Leonardo’s brush strokes had conveyed something deeper by revealing the essence of Cecilia’s soul. Even today, The Woman with an Ermine manages to astonish.
Despite the work’s importance in its own time, no records of it have been found for the two hundred and fifty years that followed Gallerani’s death. Readers of The Hare with the Amber Eyes will marvel at Eden Collinsworth’s dexterous story of illuminates the eventual history of this unique masterpiece, as it journeyed from one owner to the next–from the portrait’s next recorded owner, a Polish noblewoman, who counted Benjamin Franklin as an admirer, to its exile in Paris during the Polish Soviet War, to its return to WWII-era Poland where—in advance of Germany’s invasion—it remained hidden behind a bricked-up wall by a housekeeper who defied Hitler’s edict that it be confiscated as one of the Reich’s treasures. Fans of Anne-Marie O’Connor’s The Lady in Gold will treasure the story of this criss-crossing journey and the enigmatic woman at its heart.
Sleepwalk by Dan Chaon
Sleepwalk’s hero, Will Bear, is a man with so many aliases that he simply thinks of himself as the Barely Blur. At fifty years old, he’s been living off the grid for over half his life. He’s never had a real job, never paid taxes, never been in a committed relationship. A good-natured henchman with a complicated and lonely past and a passion for LSD microdosing, he spends his time hopscotching across state lines in his beloved camper van, running sometimes shady often dangerous errands for a powerful and ruthless operation he’s never troubled himself to learn too much about. He has lots of connections, but no true ties. His longest relationships are with an old rescue dog that has post-traumatic stress and a childhood friend as deeply entrenched in the underworld as he is, who, lately, he’s less and less sure he can trust.
Out of the blue, one of Will’s many burner phones heralds a call from a twenty-year-old woman claiming to be his biological daughter. She says she’s the product of one of his long-ago sperm donations; he’s half certain she’s AI. She needs his help. She’s entrenched in a widespread and nefarious plot involving Will’s employers, and for Will to continue to have any contact with her increasingly fuzzes the line between the people he is working for and the people he’s running from.
Athens by Bruce Clark
Even on the most smog-bound of days, the rocky outcrop on which the Acropolis stands is visible above the sprawling roof-scape of the Greek capital. Athens presents one of the most recognizable and symbolically potent panoramas of any of the world’s cities: the pillars and pediments of the Parthenon – the temple dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom, that crowns the Acropolis – dominate a city whose name is synonymous for many with civilization itself.
It is hard not to feel the hand of history in such a place. The birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy and theatre, Athens’ importance cannot be understated. Few cities have enjoyed a history so rich in artistic creativity and the making of ideas; or one so curiously patterned by alternating cycles of turbulence and quietness.
From the legal reforms of the lawmaker Solon in the sixth century BCE to the travails of early twenty-first century Athens, as it struggles with the legacy of the economic crises of the 2000s, Clark brings the city’s history to life, evoking its cultural richness and political resonance in this epic, kaleidoscopic history.
Persians by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones
The Achaemenid Persian kings ruled over the largest empire of antiquity, stretching from Libya to the steppes of Asia and from Ethiopia to Pakistan. From the palace-city of Persepolis, Cyrus the Great, Darius, Xerxes, and their heirs reigned supreme for centuries until the conquests of Alexander of Macedon brought the empire to a swift and unexpected end in the late 330s BCE.
In Persians, historian Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones tells the epic story of this dynasty and the world it ruled. Drawing on Iranian inscriptions, cuneiform tablets, art, and archaeology, he shows how the Achaemenid Persian Empire was the world’s first superpower—one built, despite its imperial ambition, on cooperation and tolerance. This is the definitive history of the Achaemenid dynasty and its legacies in modern-day Iran, a book that completely reshapes our understanding of the ancient world.
Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly
Séamas O’Reilly’s mother died when he was five, leaving him, his ten (!) brothers and sisters, and their beloved father in their sprawling bungalow in rural Derry. It was the 1990s; the Troubles were a background rumble, but Séamas was more preoccupied with dinosaurs, Star Wars, and the actual location of heaven than the political climate.
An instant bestseller in Ireland, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is a book about a family of loud, argumentative, musical, sarcastic, grief-stricken siblings, shepherded into adulthood by a man whose foibles and reticence were matched only by his love for his children and his determination that they would flourish.
The Familia Grande by Camille Kouchner
Camille Kouchner’s childhood was marked by sun-drenched summers in the south of France, where a vibrant cast of family and friends would gather at their Sanary-sur-Mer house. This familia grande, which included much of the country’s elite, spent memorable days and nights laughing, debating, drinking, and dancing. But a long-held secret poisoned Camille’s memories.
In February 2017, Camille returned to Sanary at forty-one to bury her mother, who died with none of her five children present. Her passing would stir up old emotions, ultimately leading Camille to publicly confront the truth.
The Familia Grande poignantly explores the dynamics of abuse, and the questions of guilt and shame surrounding it. Published in France in 2021, the book sparked an important conversation about incest, and the attitudes and laws that have so often allowed influential men to evade consequences for their crimes.
What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo
By age thirty, Stephanie Foo was successful on paper: She had her dream job as an award-winning radio producer at This American Life and a loving boyfriend. But behind her office door, she was having panic attacks and sobbing at her desk every morning. After years of questioning what was wrong with herself, she was diagnosed with complex PTSD—a condition that occurs when trauma happens continuously, over the course of years.
Both of Foo’s parents abandoned her when she was a teenager, after years of physical and verbal abuse and neglect. She thought she’d moved on, but her new diagnosis illuminated the way her past continued to threaten her health, relationships, and career. She found limited resources to help her, so Foo set out to heal herself, and to map her experiences onto the scarce literature about C-PTSD.
In this deeply personal and thoroughly researched account, Foo interviews scientists and psychologists and tries a variety of innovative therapies. She returns to her hometown of San Jose, California, to investigate the effects of immigrant trauma on the community, and she uncovers family secrets in the country of her birth, Malaysia, to learn how trauma can be inherited through generations. Ultimately, she discovers that you don’t move on from trauma—but you can learn to move with it.
When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East by Quan Barry
Tasked with finding the reincarnation of a great lama—a spiritual teacher who may have been born anywhere in the vast Mongolian landscape—the young monk Chuluun sets out with his identical twin, Mun, who has rejected the monastic life they once shared. Their relationship will be tested on this journey through their homeland as each possesses the ability to hear the other’s thoughts.
Proving once again that she is a writer of immense range and imagination, Quan Barry carries us across a terrain as unforgiving as it is beautiful and culturally varied, from the western Altai mountains to the eerie starkness of the Gobi Desert to the ancient capital of Chinggis Khaan. As their country stretches before them, questions of faith—along with more earthly matters of love and brotherhood—haunt the twins.
Are our lives our own, or do we belong to something larger? When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East is a stunningly far-flung examination of our individual struggle to retain our convictions and discover meaning in a fast-changing world, as well as a meditation on accepting what simply is.
Horse by Geraldine Brooks
Kentucky, 1850. An enslaved groom named Jarret and a bay foal forge a bond of understanding that will carry the horse to record-setting victories across the South. When the nation erupts in civil war, an itinerant young artist who has made his name on paintings of the racehorse takes up arms for the Union. On a perilous night, he reunites with the stallion and his groom, very far from the glamor of any racetrack.
New York City, 1954. Martha Jackson, a gallery owner celebrated for taking risks on edgy contemporary painters, becomes obsessed with a nineteenth-century equestrian oil painting of mysterious provenance.
Washington, DC, 2019. Jess, a Smithsonian scientist from Australia, and Theo, a Nigerian-American art historian, find themselves unexpectedly connected through their shared interest in the horse—one studying the stallion’s bones for clues to his power and endurance, the other uncovering the lost history of the unsung Black horsemen who were critical to his racing success.
At Last Count by Claire Ross Dunn
Paisley Ratchford is trying to keep it together, but in eight weeks, the Toronto apartment building she lives in will be demolished. A last-ditch effort to reclaim her abandoned childhood home on Amherst Island plunges Paisley into memories of growing up in the tight-knit community, and into the obsessive compulsive disorder that has only ever offered a semblance of control. Her compulsion to count in sets of eight had little effect on thwarting bullies, her father’s bad luck, and her mother’s mental illness—all of which return to haunt her.
When help arrives in the form of Paisley’s old classmate and tormentor Garnet Mulligan, her predicament only worsens. For a shot at a future, Paisley needs to stare down her past, including all the habits that have stopped her from thriving. At Last Count is a wise and often laugh-out-loud funny tale that proves we don’t always need to believe everything our brain tells us.