In the opening chapters of Dave Eggers’ latest chilling novel, we get a glimpse at a dystopian future in which privacy is a thing of the past and humankind is completely in the thrall of technology. True connection and meaningful communication are withering away. Even the secretary of state tweets dancing rainbow emoji from the official U.S. Department of State account.
At the center of this new world order is the Every, a megacorporation that has acquired Amazon, all the major search engines and social media platforms, and thousands of other companies. Enter Delaney Wells, a young idealist (is there any other kind?) whose parents lost their small-town Idaho store to the Every and now must work for the Every’s Whole Foods-esque grocery service. Delaney believes the Every is “not only a monopoly but also the most reckless and dangerous corporate entity ever conjured—and an existential threat to all that was untamed and interesting about the human species.”
Delaney’s goal is to tear down the Every from the inside. She gets a job at its headquarters and enters an otherworldly corporate culture where everyone dresses the same, steals each others’ ideas and pledges cultlike allegiance to the Every. Delaney begins proposing increasingly outlandish ideas: How about an app that listens to your conversations, tracks the participants’ vital signs and assesses the quality of the interaction? Or artificial intelligence that measures art so we no longer need to decide for ourselves whether “The Last Supper” is beautiful? Or an app called HappyNow? that tells you whether you’re happy with your recent purchases?
To Delaney’s horror, the more ridiculous her pitches, the more enthusiasm they generate, both within the Every and among consumers. She realizes her plan to turn public opinion against the monolithic company has just one flaw: Consumers no longer care about privacy or free will.
Eggers has long established his almost supernatural storytelling skills, and this new book is positively mesmerizing and wholly original. The Every, a companion book to The Circle, will likely scare the bejesus out of readers. The vivid future he depicts feels fantastical but just realistic enough to make you want to unplug your smart speaker and toss your fitness watch.
Unplug your Alexa and toss your Apple Watch. The Every, a companion book to The Circle, will likely scare the bejesus out of you.
Before she was the world-famous creator of #MeToo, the movement that sparked a reckoning with the mistreatment of women, especially women of color, Tarana Burke was a community organizer and journalist. Her experience as a reporter will be no surprise to anyone who reads Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement, her unflinching, open-hearted, beautifully told account of becoming one of the most consequential activists in America.
Burke was molested by a neighborhood boy in the Bronx when she was 7. Over the years, despite the presence of several loving adults in her life, Burke was repeatedly sexually assaulted. “I was a grown woman before I truly understood the word rape and was able to relate it to my experience,” she writes. “Language like rape, molestation, and abuse were foreign to me as a child. I had no definitions and no context. Nobody around me talked like that.”
In spite of her trauma, Burke writes with humor and gratitude about her experiences. She delves into the rich history of her family, led by a granddaddy who “believed in celebrating Blackness in as many ways as possible” and a mother who was a devout Catholic. In school, Burke was both academically gifted and an agitator who spent time in the principal’s office. A high school leadership program led Burke to Selma, Alabama, where she laid the groundwork for #MeToo after realizing there was an utter lack of programs to support and protect young women as they spoke their truth about sexual abuse.
Burke also writes honestly about her reaction to #MeToo becoming a viral phenomenon on social media in 2017, initially without her knowledge or participation. After spending more than a decade traveling around the country, conducting workshops and speaking on panels about surviving sexual assault, she worried social media would water down or misuse her work.
Ultimately Burke realized that “all the folks who were using the #metoo hashtag, and all the Hollywood actresses who came forward with their allegations, needed the same thing that the little Black girls in Selma, Alabama, needed—space to be seen and heard. They needed empathy and compassion and a path to healing.”
Unbound is not just a thoroughly engrossing read. It’s also an important book that helps us understand the woman who has been so influential as our country struggles to acknowledge women’s trauma.
Unbound is Tarana Burke’s unflinching, beautifully told account of founding the #MeToo movement and becoming one of the most consequential activists in America.
Early in The Turnout, the beautifully dark suspense novel from bestselling author Megan Abbott (Dare Me), readers will sense that all is not right in the Durant School of Dance, a prestigious yet moldering ballet studio.
It’s “Nutcracker” season, and the holiday staple brings in the bulk of the annual revenue for the school, which is run by the Durant sisters, Dara and Marie, and Dara’s husband, Charlie. Emotions are running high in the days leading up to the announcement of who will play Clara—the most coveted role but also the one that makes the dancer the target of cruel jealousy from both students and parents.
Marie, who had been living with Dara and Charlie ever since the sudden death of the sisters’ parents, has recently set up camp in the attic above the studio. A fire from her space heater leaves part of the studio in ruins, and a possibly shady contractor comes on board to help with renovations. The future of the studio is in jeopardy, forcing the sisters to revisit their traumatic childhood as they decide whether the Durant School is worth saving.
The Turnout submerses readers in the obsessive, toxic world of competitive ballet. Abbott perfectly describes the unique smells and atmosphere of a dance studio: a mix of sweat, vomit and hormones. She unsettlingly juxtaposes a sport that requires astonishing levels of discipline with the sugary sweet story of “The Nutcracker.” “Consider the exquisite torture of all those little girls never allowed to eat dancing as costumed Sugar Plums, as fat Bonbons gushing cherry slicks. Tutus like ribbon candy, boys spinning great hoops of peppermint, and everywhere black slathers of licorice and marzipan glistening like snow.”
Abbott layers dread and darkness as readers learn about the harrowing family home that shaped Dara and Marie and pulled Charlie into their lives. Virtually no one is who they seem, and Abbott keeps the twists coming until the final pages. The Turnout is the kind of gripping, unnerving page turner we have come to expect from an author who does noir better than almost anyone.
Early in The Turnout, the beautifully dark suspense novel from bestselling author Megan Abbott, readers will sense that all is not right in the Durant School of Dance.
Despite the dance studio-setting of her new thriller, The Turnout, Megan Abbott was decidedly not a ballerina growing up.
“My dancing background is restricted to two years at a strip mall dance studio in Michigan,” Abbott says with a laugh. But that didn’t stop her from developing a lifelong fixation with ballet. “Like a lot of young women, because it’s so tied to femininity, I had a fascination with it at a young age. I read all the ballet memoirs. I loved all the stuff about ballet and about young women dying or contracting terrible diseases.”
Abbott famously writes intense, often noirish books. Her breakout 2012 thriller, Dare Me, was an unflinching look at the cutthroat world of high school cheerleading, and some of her 11 other novels are inspired by famous crimes from decades past. So talking to her on the phone from her home in the Queens borough of New York City is surprising; she is effusive and lighthearted as she talks about the inspiration for her haunting new book, The Turnout.
It’s a beautifully written look at a musty ballet studio run by sisters Dara and Marie and Dara’s husband, Charlie, who came to live with Dara and Marie when they were teens. All three grapple with the trauma of their deeply troubled childhoods and the toll ballet has taken on their bodies. Once the most promising dancer of the three, Charlie has endured four surgeries and lives with ongoing chronic pain. “His body, still as lean and marble-cut as the day their mother brought him home, was a living reminder of how quickly things could turn,” Abbott writes, “how beautiful things could all be broken inside.”
“It seems the impulse is still there, despite everything, of women judging other women.”
The physically and emotionally grueling world of ballet was a subject Abbott had considered for years before finally sitting down to write The Turnout. “I was interested in the smells and the sort of fixations with the repetitions and discipline required,” she says. “The mind games dancers will do to get in that space.”
The relationship dynamics between women—how they both support and undermine each other—is a prominent theme in many of Abbott’s books. “When I started, there were a vanishingly few crime novels that had female characters,” she says. “I realized, oh, people haven’t really talked about [female relationships] so much in this world. . . . We know this [competitive dynamic] goes on and the way women talk to each other and are passive aggressive with each other. We know the casual comments that women know are a veiled insult—this secret language of women. [After] seeing how rich a mine it was, I just kept going back.”
One perhaps unexpected inspiration for The Turnout was the hit true crime podcast “Dirty John,” which tells the story of John Michael Meehan, a charmer who conned a successful California businesswoman into marriage with disastrous results for her and her family.
“The listener comments would be almost entirely women commenting and basically trashing the [victims], these women who had been conned and brutalized,” Abbott says. “It seems the impulse is still there, despite everything, of women judging other women, particularly for their romantic choices. It’s obviously a really defensive posture, a fear that this could happen to you.”
When writing her suspense novels, Abbott starts out with a story and perspective in mind, but she remains open to her characters making choices, too, and she speaks of them as if they are co-authors. “We’re complex and complicated and ambivalent and change over time,” she says. “It does feel like they’re telling you what you want to do in the moment. I follow the breadcrumbs, so to speak.”
Constant change is an unavoidable part of another of Abbott’s passions: the “love story of her life,” New York City. She’s been a New Yorker since the early 1990s and has watched the city go through several iterations and waves of gentrification. “It was still a little rough around the edges when I moved here, then there was this Disneyfication and the slow ‘everyone is moving to the outer boroughs,’” she says. “Manhattan was becoming empty condos of wealthy internationalists, and now it’s coming back to life. I’ve seen many versions of it. I’ll never leave it.”
Despite this, Abbott does not set her books there. In fact, several of her novels are fairly vague on their exact locations, and that includes The Turnout, where the studio is set on the top two floors of a squat, rusty brick office building downtown—though downtown where is not readily apparent.
“New York is home, so to me, it’s not exotic,” she says. “I do tend to want to write places where I don’t specify too many regional signifiers, so you can picture it and relate to it. I don’t want them to be quite that grounded.”
Living through the COVID-19 pandemic in the city was not easy for Abbott, but having consistent projects in TV and movie writing (including adapting The Turnout into a limited series) forced her to stay productive and focused. “Luckily I needed to basically write all the time during the pandemic,” she says. “With TV and film scripts, you literally don’t get paid until you finish it, and people are waiting! It gave me a rigor. Script work also kept me connected to people in a strange time. As a novelist, it’s a solitary life, but now I couldn’t even leave my apartment, so it was an umbilical cord to the rest of the world.”
One of Abbott’s favorite recent TV projects was writing for the HBO series “The Deuce,” set in the seedy Times Square of the late 1970s. Abbott said it was thrilling, if daunting, to write about this period in the city’s storied history.
“I was so terrified that it really made me obsessively research,” she says. She describes most of her stories as being “very small . . . set in hothouses,” whereas the stories in “The Deuce” are “very expansive, with multiple characters and worlds like the police and pimps.”
Now that vaccines are available in the U.S. and the country appears to be opening up again, Abbott knows exactly how she’s going to reclaim her beloved city. “What I really missed, maybe the most, is a sweaty, loud, noisy bar with friends and the music throbbing and the sensate experience of that,” she says. “That experience of having to strain your voice to talk to your friends about some book you just read or movie you just saw.”
Author photo by Drew Reilly.
Despite the dance studio-setting of her new thriller, The Turnout, Megan Abbott was decidedly not a ballerina growing up.
Green Bank, West Virginia, is known as the quietest town in America. It’s a lushly forested place where a government-owned observatory requires unimaginable levels of quiet, and therefore where locals are asked to eschew cell phones, microwaves and Wi-Fi.
Since the Green Bank Observatory was built in 1957, scientists there have quite literally listened to the universe through equipment that only works when it’s not competing with the electronic noise of modern society. Employees at the observatory have spent decades mitigating radio frequency noise, outfitting the Dollar General’s automated front door with conductive lead paint to block electromagnetic radiation and once even replacing a malfunctioning electric blanket in a local home.
While some locals sneak in forbidden electric gadgets, Green Bank is a haven for those who seek unusual peace and quiet. When journalist Stephen Kurczy started visiting regularly in 2017, he quickly realized it’s an eclectic group. The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence is his fascinating, deeply reported and slightly eerie look at an unusual corner of America.
“Had I walked into a dream?” Kurczy wonders. “An elderly man was cohabitating with bears down the road from the world-famous clown doctor Patch Adams and just a few miles from a hippie enclave, all of them sharing a patch of Appalachia with world-renowned astronomers and secretive government operatives. The area seemed tinged with magical realism, with an impossible menagerie of eccentrics congregating in the forest.”
How had so many disparate groups found their way to the same town in West Virginia? The truth is, many of them came there to be left alone. In repeated trips to Green Bank, Kurczy gets to know these various groups, from the white nationalists who attempted to build their headquarters there to a group of electrosensitives who become ill from even the slightest electromagnetic radiation and who moved to Green Bank in a desperate attempt to quell their sickness.
Ultimately, Kurczy realizes Green Bank is not as silent as the media portrays it, but he brings to life other facets of this town that are even more intriguing. Kurczy becomes embedded in the community, and with compassion and a journalist’s eye he delivers a compelling portrait of a town where people struggle with the same issues as the rest of America, just a little more quietly.
The Quiet Zone is Stephen Kurczy’s fascinating, deeply reported and slightly eerie look at a town in West Virginia with no cell phones, microwaves or Wi-Fi.
When longtime Georgia Congressman John Lewis died from pancreatic cancer in 2020, President Obama said, “He, as much as anyone in our history, brought this country a little bit closer to its highest ideals.” This lovely book offers Lewis’ meditations on everything from love to public service and affirms that he indeed represented the best of our nation.
Carry On: Reflections for a New Generation is divided into short sections in which Lewis shares hard-earned wisdom from his years on the front lines of the civil rights battle. The son of a sharecropper, Lewis joined Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders as they protested segregation across the South. For someone who faced injustice, police brutality and racism, Lewis remained remarkably optimistic. “Yes, we were jailed, arrested, firebombed, bloodied,” he writes in a chapter on activism. “But we never felt hate, and even though it can be hard to hold back our anger, it is worth the effort because it works in the end. We changed America, and now the time has come for more change.”
Lewis devotes much of the book to the current expression of our nation’s racism. He compares the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin to the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till and urges his fellow Americans to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement.
There are lighter chapters, too, in which Lewis writes about art, sports, clothes and books. He loved comic books as a kid, and a favorite hobby as an adult was frequenting flea markets searching for old books. These chapters read like someone shooting the breeze with an old friend. He recalls telling Congressman Elijah Cummings, for whom he was often mistaken, that he was going to get a tattoo on the back of his head so people would stop confusing them.
Carry On is a bittersweet book, coming so soon on the heels of Lewis’ death, but a beautiful reminder of finding hope and joy in the simplest things. “Happiness is being at home after a long day, playing with and feeding my cats,” Lewis writes. “I’m a happy person.”
This lovely book offers John Lewis’ meditations on everything from love to public service. It’s a beautiful reminder that he represented the best of our nation.
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