In an interview some years ago, Erik Larson, author of such bestsellers as The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts, called himself “an animator of history” rather than a historian. Indeed, he has always shown a brilliant ability to unearth the telling details of a story and has the narrative chops to bring a historical moment vividly alive. But in his new book, Larson simply outdoes himself.
What makes Rob Dunn’s narrative history of advances in heart research so fascinating is on vivid display in the opening chapter of The Man Who Touched His Own Heart. Here Dunn tells the story of a Chicago surgeon who performed the first-known repair to the pericardium, the protective sac around the heart. The year was 1893, and Chicago was abuzz over the World’s Fair. The patient, a railroad worker, had been stabbed in a knife fight at a local bar. The surgeon, a talented, ambitious African-American man, had been forced by racial prejudice to found his own poorly funded hospital, serving Chicago’s lower class. At a time when a knife to the heart was almost always fatal, the revolutionary procedure was delicate and complex because there was no technology to sustain the heart while a surgeon worked on it. To everyone’s amazement, the procedure succeeded.
Amanda Eyre Ward had already finished writing The Same Sky, her moving novel about an 11-year-old Honduran girl attempting to reunite with her mother in the U.S., when the controversy about undocumented minors blew up along the border last summer.
If Elena Gorokhova’s splendid second memoir merely conveyed to readers a vivid, almost visceral understanding of the sometimes paralyzing sense of dislocation she experienced arriving in the United States in 1980 from the Soviet Union, that alone would be reason enough to read it. On her first day in the U.S., for instance, she visits the air-conditioned Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum with the American husband she barely knows, and wonders, “Why are there no smells? Russia assaults you in your nostrils: milk always on the verge of turning sour, the wet wool of winter coats we wear everyday for five months, rubber phone booth tiles buckled with urine. . . .”
Dutch writer Peter Buwalda is keenly attuned to the ironies of being a successful novelist. “A successful writer is living a paradox,” Buwalda says from to his home in Amsterdam, where he moved after his gripping literary debut, Bonita Avenue, became a bestseller in Holland in 2010.
A harried reader could get the gist of The Secret History of Wonder Woman by opening it just past dead center and reading through the 16-page comic-book version of the story.
Gina B. Nahai’s fifth novel, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S., is a book full of enchantments and mysteries. The mystery that launches her tale is a contemporary murder: On a morning in June 2013, Neda Raiis, the wife of a Iranian Jewish exile named Raphael’s Son, reports finding her husband with his throat slit in an idling car at the gate of their Los Angeles mansion. By the time the police arrive, his body has disappeared.
At the age of 85, Edward O. Wilson, one of our foremost evolutionary biologists (and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner), has written a provocative book that is so fascinating it nearly lives up to the stunning ambition of its title.
Suki Kim, author of the highly regarded novel The Interpreter, went to North Korea to teach English under doubly false pretenses. Her fellow instructors at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) were evangelical Christians pretending to be nonreligious teachers. (“North Korea was the evangelical Christian Holy Grail, the hardest place to crack in the whole world,” she writes.) To be accepted into the program, Kim pretended to be an evangelical pretending to be a nonreligious teacher. She feared exposure on all sides.
The question that will burn in a reader’s mind when she finishes Some Luck, Jane Smiley’s marvelous new novel, is: How long do I have to wait to read the second volume in The Last Hundred Years trilogy?