This week’s books strike a somewhat funereal tone, with the devilish and the deathly, the murderous and the memorial. But, there’s also some mirth hidden in these pages, we promise!
The Devil’s Element by Dan Egan
Phosphorus has played a critical role in some of the most lethal substances on earth: firebombs, rat poison, nerve gas. But it’s also the key component of one of the most vital: fertilizer, which has sustained life for billions of people. In this major work of explanatory science and environmental journalism, Pulitzer Prize finalist Dan Egan investigates the past, present, and future of what has been called “the oil of our time.”
The story of phosphorus spans the globe and vast tracts of human history. First discovered in a seventeenth-century alchemy lab in Hamburg, it soon became a highly sought-after resource. The race to mine phosphorus took people from the battlefields of Waterloo, which were looted for the bones of fallen soldiers, to the fabled guano islands off Peru, the Bone Valley of Florida, and the sand dunes of the Western Sahara. Over the past century, phosphorus has made farming vastly more productive, feeding the enormous increase in the human population. Yet, as Egan harrowingly reports, our overreliance on this vital crop nutrient is today causing toxic algae blooms and “dead zones” in waterways from the coasts of Florida to the Mississippi River basin to the Great Lakes and beyond. Egan also explores the alarming reality that diminishing access to phosphorus poses a threat to the food system worldwide—which risks rising conflict and even war.
With The Devil’s Element, Egan has written an essential and eye-opening account that urges us to pay attention to one of the most perilous but little-known environmental issues of our time.
The Red Balcony by Jonathan Wilson
It’s 1933, and Ivor Castle, Oxford-educated and Jewish, arrives in Palestine to take up a position as assistant to the defense counsel in the trial of the two men accused of murdering Haim Arlosoroff, a leader of the Jewish community in Palestine whose efforts to get Jews out of Hitler’s Germany and into Palestine may have been controversial enough to get him killed.
While preparing for the trial, Ivor, an innocent to the politics of the case, falls into bed and deeply in love with Tsiona, a free-spirited artist who happened to sketch the accused men in a Jerusalem café on the night of the murder and may be a key witness. As Ivor learns the hard way about the violence simmering just beneath the surface of British colonial rule, Jonathan Wilson dazzles with his mastery of the sun-drenched landscape and the subtleties of the warring agendas among the Jews, Arabs, and British.
And as he travels between the crime scene in Tel Aviv and the mazelike streets of Jerusalem, between the mounting mysteries surrounding this notorious case and clandestine lovemaking in Tsiona’s studio, Ivor must discover where his heart lies: whether he cares more for the law or the truth, whether he is more an Englishman or a Jew, and where and with whom he truly belongs.
Femina by Janina Ramirez
The Middle Ages are seen as a bloodthirsty time of Vikings, saints and kings; a patriarchal society that oppressed and excluded women. But when we dig a little deeper into the truth, we can see that the “Dark” Ages were anything but.
Oxford and BBC historian Janina Ramirez has uncovered countless influential women’s names struck out of historical records, with the word FEMINA annotated beside them. As gatekeepers of the past ordered books to be burned, artworks to be destroyed, and new versions of myths, legends and historical documents to be produced, our view of history has been manipulated.
Only now, through a careful examination of the artifacts, writings and possessions they left behind, are the influential and multifaceted lives of women emerging. Femina goes beyond the official records to uncover the true impact of women, such as:
- Jadwiga, the only female king in Europe
- Margery Kempe, who exploited her image and story to ensure her notoriety
- Loftus Princess, whose existence gives us clues about the beginnings of Christianity in England
In Femina, Ramirez invites us to see the medieval world with fresh eyes and discover why these remarkable women were removed from our collective memories.
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton
Birnam Wood is on the move . . . A landslide has closed the Korowai Pass on New Zealand’s South Island, cutting off the town of Thorndike and leaving a sizable farm abandoned. The disaster has created an opportunity for Birnam Wood, an unregulated, sometimes-criminal, sometimes-philanthropic guerrilla gardening collective that plants crops wherever no one will notice.
For years, the group has struggled to break even. Then Mira, Birnam Wood’s founder, stumbles on an answer: occupying the farm at Thorndike would mean a shot at solvency at last. But Mira is not the only one interested in Thorndike. The enigmatic American billionaire Robert Lemoine has snatched it up to build his end-times bunker, or so he tells Mira when he catches her on the property. Intrigued by Mira and Birnam Wood, he makes them an offer that would set them up for the long term. But can they trust him? And, as their ideals and ideologies are tested, can they trust one another?
Birnam Wood is Shakespearean in its drama, Austenian in its wit, and, like both influences, fascinated by what makes us who we are. A brilliantly constructed consideration of intentions, actions, and consequences, it is a mesmerizing, unflinching consideration of the human impulse to ensure our own survival.
Osebol by Marit Kapla
Near the river Klarälven, snug in the dense forest landscape of northern Värmland, lies the secluded village of Osebol. It is a quiet place: one where relationships take root over decades, and where the bustle of city life is replaced by the sound of wind in the trees.
In this extraordinary and engrossing book, an unexpected cultural phenomenon in its native Sweden, the stories of Osebol’s residents are brought to life in their own words. Over the last half-century, the automation of the lumber industry and the steady relocations to the cities have seen the village’s adult population fall to roughly forty. But still, life goes on; heirlooms are passed from hand to hand, and memories from mouth to mouth, while new arrivals come from near and far.
Marit Kapla has interviewed nearly every villager between the ages of 18 and 92, recording their stories verbatim. What emerges is at once a familiar chronicle of great social metamorphosis, told from the inside, and a beautifully microcosmic portrait of a place and its people. To read Osebol is to lose oneself in its gentle rhythms of simple language and open space, and to emerge feeling like one has really grown to know the inhabitants of this varied community, nestled among the trees in a changing world.
The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li
Fabienne is dead. Her childhood best friend, Agnès, receives the news in America, far from the French countryside where the two girls were raised—the place that Fabienne helped Agnès escape ten years ago. Now Agnès is free to tell her story.
As children in a war-ravaged backwater town, they’d built a private world, invisible to everyone but themselves—until Fabienne hatched the plan that would change everything, launching Agnès on an epic trajectory through fame, fortune, and terrible loss.
Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez
A young father and son set out on a road trip, devastated by the death of the wife and mother they both loved. United in grief, the pair travel to her ancestral home, where they must confront the terrifying legacy she has bequeathed: a family called the Order that commits unspeakable acts in search of immortality.
For Gaspar, the son, this maniacal cult is his destiny. As the Order tries to pull him into their evil, he and his father take flight, attempting to outrun a powerful clan that will do anything to ensure its own survival. But how far will Gaspar’s father go to protect his child? And can anyone escape their fate?
Moving back and forth in time, from London in the swinging 1960s to the brutal years of Argentina’s military dictatorship and its turbulent aftermath, Our Share of Night is a novel like no other: a family story, a ghost story, a story of the occult and the supernatural, a book about the complexities of love and longing with queer subplots and themes. This is the masterwork of one of Latin America’s most original novelists, “a mesmerizing writer,” says Dave Eggers, “who demands to be read.”
Murder Your Employer by Rupert Holmes
Who hasn’t wondered for a split second what the world would be like if a person who is the object of your affliction ceased to exist? But then you’ve probably never heard of The McMasters Conservatory, dedicated to the consummate execution of the homicidal arts. To gain admission, a student must have an ethical reason for erasing someone who deeply deserves a fate no worse (nor better) than death. The campus of this “Poison Ivy League” college—its location unknown to even those who study there—is where you might find yourself the practice target of a classmate…and where one’s mandatory graduation thesis is getting away with the perfect murder of someone whose death will make the world a much better place to live.
Prepare for an education you’ll never forget. A delightful mix of witty wordplay, breathtaking twists and genuine intrigue, Murder Your Employer will gain you admission into a wholly original world, cocooned within the most entertaining book about well-intentioned would-be murderers you’ll ever read.
In Memoriam by Alice Winn
It’s 1914, and World War I is ceaselessly churning through thousands of young men on both sides of the fight. The violence of the front feels far away to Henry Gaunt, Sidney Ellwood and the rest of their classmates, safely ensconced in their idyllic boarding school in the English countryside. News of the heroic deaths of their friends only makes the war more exciting.
Gaunt, half German, is busy fighting his own private battle–an all-consuming infatuation with his best friend, the glamorous, charming Ellwood–without a clue that Ellwood is pining for him in return. When Gaunt’s family asks him to enlist to forestall the anti-German sentiment they face, Gaunt does so immediately, relieved to escape his overwhelming feelings for Ellwood. To Gaunt’s horror, Ellwood rushes to join him at the front, and the rest of their classmates soon follow. Now death surrounds them in all its grim reality, often inches away, and no one knows who will be next.
An epic tale of both the devastating tragedies of war and the forbidden romance that blooms in its grip, In Memoriam is a breathtaking debut.
This Other Eden by Paul Harding
In 1792, formerly enslaved Benjamin Honey and his Irish wife, Patience, discovered an island where they could make a life together. More than a century later, the Honeys’ descendants remain on Apple Island, with an eccentric, diverse band of neighbours: a pair of sisters raising three Penobscot orphans; Theophilus and Candace Lark and their nocturnal brood; and the prophetic Zachary Hand to God Proverbs, a Civil War veteran who lives in a hollow tree.
Then comes the intrusion of “civilization”: eugenics-minded state officials decide to “cleanse” the island, and a missionary-schoolteacher selects one light-skinned boy to save. The rest will be left to succumb to institutions or cast themselves on the waters in a new Noah’s Ark.
In prose of transcendent beauty and power, Paul Harding has written a mesmerizing story that explores the hopes, the dreams, and the resilience of those perceived not to fit in a world brutally intolerant of difference.