Harvey Freedenberg

With bylines in publications that include the London Review of Books, Harper’s and The New Yorker, Lauren Oyler has established herself as a cultural critic whose fresh, and often contrarian, assessments are well worth reading. Her first nonfiction book, No Judgment, comprises eight previously unpublished essays that will please Oyler’s admirers and serve as an excellent introduction to her preoccupations and literary style for those unfamiliar with her work.

Whether she’s writing a personal essay, journalism or criticism, Oyler brings to the task evidence of wide reading, thoughtful engagement and vigorous prose. All of those qualities, along with her willingness to confront conventional wisdom, are manifested in “The Power of Vulnerability,” an essay in which she registers her protest against the “tyranny of vulnerability in emotional life” sparked by bestselling author Brené Brown’s wildly popular 2010 TED Talk. The sources that inform Oyler’s blistering critique include Sigmund Freud, the Aeneid and the NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation,” among others.

Oyler demonstrates her facility for literary criticism in a lengthy essay discussing autofiction, a subject that’s of interest to her in view of some of the responses to her 2021 novel, Fake Accounts, whose protagonist’s life bears a certain resemblance to her own. When asked, she jokingly tells questioners, the work is 72% autobiographical. As she considers the works of contemporaries like Sally Rooney, Karl Ove Knausgård and Sheila Heti, Oyler deftly navigates the sometimes blurred boundary between fiction and nonfiction and the challenges facing those writing both.

The collection’s revealing personal essays include “Why Do You Live Here?”, a lively account of her decision to settle in Berlin in 2021, and “My Anxiety,” Oyler’s exploration of her struggles to cope with everything from bruxism (teeth grinding) to insomnia. Her journalistic explorations of gossip and of online reviews, especially those on Goodreads, are both enlightening and provocative.

Oyler is a writer who will have readers nodding in agreement on one page and shaking their heads vigorously on the next. Whatever the reaction at a given moment, one can rest assured that her writing is never dull.

The provocative No Judgment will have readers nodding in agreement on one page and shaking their heads vigorously on the next.

Until the publication of his raw 2011 memoir, Townie, Andre Dubus III was known exclusively for bestselling novels like House of Sand and Fog. The 18 emotionally generous and beautifully crafted essays in Ghost Dogs: On Killers and Kin are certain to please the fans of this empathetic writer’s fiction and nonfiction.

Though there’s no organizing scheme to Dubus’ book, the themes of money, family and the writing life predominate. He’s the son of esteemed short story writer and teacher Andre Dubus II, who abandoned 10-year-old Andre and his three siblings to the care of a devoted mother who struggled to provide for them throughout their childhood. His life was shadowed for decades by this impoverished past. This comes to bear on his essay “The Land of No,” in which he describes his challenging relationship with a girlfriend who was the beneficiary of a $2 million trust fund. In another essay, “High Life,” he reveals his ambivalence over a few days of profligate spending he indulged in as the organizer of a celebration for his aunt’s 70th birthday in New York City.

That essay also reflects the centrality of deep family relationships in Dubus’ life. He and his wife Fontaine, a dancer and choreographer, have been married since 1989, a union that’s produced three children. “Pappy” is a warmhearted tribute to his maternal grandfather, who introduced Dubus to the virtues of hard physical labor one steamy summer in Louisiana. In “Mary,” he offers an affectionate portrait of his relationship with his mother-in-law, who lived in an apartment at the Massachusetts home Dubus helped build until her death at 99.

Reflective of Dubus’ passion for writing is “Carver and Dubus.” It’s a touching story of the sole encounter between Dubus’ father and one of his literary idols, Raymond Carver, only a few months before Carver’s death in 1988, and at a time when the younger Dubus was emerging as a writer. As a whole, the essays plumb great emotional depths. Strictly speaking, Andre Dubus III’s estimable gift for words may not be in his DNA, but as this book reveals, it’s at the core of who he is as a human being.

Andre Dubus III plumbs emotional depths in his beautifully crafted memoir in essays, Ghost Dogs.
Interview by

As a 19-year-old undergraduate, Antonia Hylton read an academic paper that mentioned Crownsville State Hospital, known at its founding as the Hospital for the Negro Insane. That reference triggered an obsession with the hospital’s bleak history that has carried her through the 10 years it took to produce Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum. Hylton brings both her journalistic talent and a deep, personal engagement to something she unabashedly describes as a “passion project.” In it, she recounts the 93-year life of Crownsville, tying that painful history to the story of the treatment of mental illness in the United States, especially in communities of color, and to her own family’s experiences with mental health.

Speaking via video from a conference room at NBC headquarters in New York City, Hylton brims with energy and enthusiasm. “If I could understand everything there was to know about Crownsville,” she says, “I would understand my family and my country better.” In her mind, “doing this would be cathartic; it would help me have conversations or fill in blanks that I was struggling to fill in otherwise.”

Hylton calls her book a “tribute to oral history,” and the more than 40 interviews she conducted with former staff and patients—some of them in their 80s or older—and her own family members deeply enrich the story. “This book came to life because of the stories people shared with me,” she says.

One of the greatest challenges in collecting those stories was gaining access to the patients, many of them deeply traumatized by their experiences at Crownsville. “To find patients who were ready to go on the record comfortably was an incredible challenge,” Hylton says, “and it took a lot of trust-building and community outreach. I really had to accept that it was going to be a one-person-at-a-time kind of thing.”

“In addition to putting years of reporting on the page, I put my heart out there.”

Thankfully, there are few people better prepared for this specific kind of work than Hylton. In less than a decade following her graduation from Harvard University, Hylton has already accumulated an impressive set of professional credentials and honors, including Emmy and Peabody awards. After several years as a correspondent and producer for VICE Media, she joined NBC News and MSNBC, where she works as a correspondent on stories at the intersection of politics, education and civil rights.

Book jacket image for Madness by Antonia HyltonBeginning in 2014, she spent long hours in the Maryland State Archives combing through Crownsville’s files, woefully incomplete thanks to shoddy record keeping and the destruction of decades of documents by the state. The paucity of documents would have been far worse had it not been for the efforts of Paul Lurz, a longtime Crownsville staff member who served as an unofficial preservationist. Hylton acknowledges feeling “really angry” that “no one had thought to dignify or track this information in the first place.”

Hylton follows the history of the hospital from its inception in 1911, when 12 Black men were transported to rural Maryland to begin constructing the facility that eventually would house them as its patients, to its closure in 2004. It’s a story of an institution where treatment was often crude and callous, though there were, at times, some who tried to treat their patients with humanity. Most notable among the latter was Jacob Morgenstern, a Holocaust survivor who became Crownsville’s superintendent in 1947, and who recruited a group of fellow survivors to serve as staff.

It’s hard not to read Madness without a mingled sense of anger and sadness, as Hylton patiently chronicles the decades when Black patients received substandard care in an overcrowded, understaffed hospital that deemed them less worthy of quality treatment than Maryland’s white mentally ill, even using some patients as subjects in scientific studies without their consent. The hospital was not desegregated until 1963, but in the ’60s and ’70s, as the approach to treating mental illness focused on shifting patients from large institutions like Crownsville to community mental health centers, its former patients were released into the population without access to the resources they needed to make that transition successfully.

Hylton says that what kept driving her to tell Crownsville’s anguished history was the door it opened into her own family’s painful past. She twines an institutional story with a deeply personal one, unearthing the stories of her cousin Maynard and great-grandfather Clarence, whose lives were tragically impacted by mental illness and then largely written out of her family’s history. “I’m going to resurrect Maynard and Clarence,” she says. “I’m going to give their lives some dignity. I’m going to give their struggles some context that wasn’t there decades ago.” Indeed, Hylton reveals, excavating these stories encouraged some family members to seek therapy to heal their own psychological wounds.

Read our starred review of Madness by Antonia Hylton.

The Maryland legislature has appropriated an initial $30 million for Anne Arundel County to turn the hospital grounds into a memorial, park and museum. Local historian and community organizer Janice Hayes-Williams has created an annual service she calls “Say My Name” at the site, to recall the some 1,700 patients buried there.

Hylton brings Madness to a moving climax with a scene she says “just poured out of me,” describing the 2022 commemoration at the onsite cemetery. On an April morning, she followed in the steps of community elders, clutching multicolored rose petals and a piece of paper bearing the name of Frances Clayton, a woman from Baltimore who died at Crownsville in 1924 at age 41. Kneeling down to place the petals on the ground, Hylton pressed her palm to the ground “to feel the pulse of the earth.” She writes that at that moment, she thought, “They’ve been waiting for us.”

“If I can inspire even just one family to have some of the conversations my family has been able to have as a result of this reporting, that’s what I want,” she says. The responses of some of her early readers “have already made me feel very whole, even with a story that is heartbreaking. In addition to putting years of reporting on the page, I put my heart out there.”

Photo of Antonia Hylton by Mark Clennon.

The Emmy Award-winning journalist chronicles the decades-long history of Crownsville State Hospital, where patients lived in prisonlike conditions.

In telling the story of Maryland’s Crownsville Hospital, Emmy Award-winning NBC News correspondent Antonia Hylton illuminates a troubling chapter in America’s treatment of its Black citizens. Readers of Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum will come away from Hylton’s disquieting book with a keen knowledge of our country’s profound historical failings in mental health care, as well as the persistence of these failings when they are compounded with racism today.

In March 1911, 12 Black men were delivered to a forest in rural Maryland just northwest of the city of Annapolis. For the next three years, their task was to construct the asylum that would house them, then called the State Hospital for the Negro Insane. At the hospital’s height in the mid-20th century, some 2,700 patients, including children, lived in “prisonlike conditions,” overcrowded and understaffed, at times with “one doctor per 225 patients.” Hylton traces the history of Crownsville over 93 years until its closure in 2004, revealing that even as some of its leaders strove to implement more humane policies, the hospital’s fundamental flaws persisted.

Hylton began work on the project that became this book a decade ago while a student at Harvard University. In 2014, she first accessed records stored in the Maryland State Archives, but these only partially revealed Crownsville’s dismal history—any records dating before 1960 were allegedly destroyed. To supplement her extensive archival research, she relied on reporting from Black-owned publications and conducted more than 40 interviews. Among her most fruitful conversations were ones with Paul Lurz, a former chief of social services who became an unofficial records preservationist, especially as the institution approached its final days; and Sonia King, a onetime patient who finished her education after her recovery and returned to Crownsville as a therapeutic recreation specialist.

In Hylton’s author’s note, she is candid about her inspiration for this research: Her own family history of mental illness motivated her to uncover where racial injustice and mental illness intersect. She interviewed family members in the process, writing, “I wanted to model the kind of self-exploration and judgment-free discussion that I hope my book inspires in others.”

Hylton’s account of the mistreatment of generations of Black patients at Crownsville and the callous approach of many caregivers and public officials makes for painful, but essential, reading. Madness is an unsparing reckoning with a fraught past and a clear-eyed call for a more responsible, compassionate future.

Read our interview with Antonia Hylton.

Antonia Hylton’s Madness offers an unsparing reckoning with history as it excavates an infamous mental hospital for Black patients.

In 2018, Japanese writer Shoji Morimoto began renting himself out to his 300 Twitter followers, as long as the request involved doing nothing on his part. Within 10 months, his follower count ballooned to 100,000; now it’s over 400,000. Morimoto’s account of this effort (or lack thereof) is Rental Person Who Does Nothing. In it, he recounts some of the more than 4,000 times he’s been hired in his quest to fulfill his “wish to live without doing anything.”

After abandoning a corporate job he despised for freelance writing he soon concluded was simultaneously dull and stressful, he started the service he calls “Do Nothing Rental” as a means of assuaging his mid-30s angst. For a variety of reasons he outlines in the book, Morimoto decided not to charge his followers any money for fulfilling their requests, other than reimbursement for travel expenses, confessing that for now, at least, he’s living off his wife’s salary and savings.

Under the handle of @morimotoshoji, he fields requests—all of which require only passive involvement by his somewhat flexible definition—and then shares some of the best stories of his experiences on his feed. Rental Person Who Does Nothing details a variety of them, such as the time he accompanied a woman to the courthouse to file her divorce papers, the day he joined a man for 13 circuits of Tokyo by rail, and the conversation with a client who confessed that he had once been involved in the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, notorious for its nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. The tone throughout is consistently light and self-effacing. “I couldn’t do anything,” he writes, “so I started doing nothing.”

For all his wry humor, Morimoto makes some trenchant points about social and cultural issues like friendship, the elusiveness of human connection, artificial intelligence and the role of money. With the U.S. Surgeon General recently identifying an epidemic of loneliness in this country, one wonders whether a similar “do nothing” service might be valuable here.

With wry humor, Shoji Morimoto describes his unique occupation, in which he’ll do anything with a client as long as it involves nothing but his presence.

With the publication of exquisite literary gems like Foster and Small Things Like These, Irish writer Claire Keegan’s reputation among American readers is slowly, but steadily, growing. The three elegantly-crafted stories collected in So Late in the Day: Stories of Women and Men will only enhance that increasing regard.

In the title story, Cathal, a Dubliner on the cusp of middle age, faces a lonely weekend as he looks back on the demise of his relationship with Sabine, a French woman he met at a conference two years earlier. What Cathal originally regarded as innocuous and fully justified observations about his lover mutate into profound character flaws and reflections of his misogyny considered through Sabine’s eyes. Ruminating, he recalls a line he read, “about how, if things have not ended badly . . . they have not ended.”

“The Long and Painful Death” is the story of an unnamed female writer who has won a highly competitive two week residency at a cottage on Ireland’s Achill Island once owned by German Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll. Her retreat is interrupted almost immediately by a German literature professor who wants to see the house, and when she hosts him for tea and cake he makes clear his views about her worthiness as even a temporary occupant of Böll‘s former home.

The subtle air of menace that hovers over “The Long and Painful Death” emerges full-blown in “Antarctica,” which was originally published as the title story in Keegan’s debut collection. In this disturbing final story, a “happily married” woman uses the excuse of a Christmas shopping trip to Somerset, England, to find out what it’s like to sleep with another man. It doesn’t take her long to connect with a suitable candidate at a pub near her hotel. At first, their mutually fulfilling sex exceeds her modest expectations, but the story’s chilling final pages are worthy of a tale fashioned by Stephen King.

In a book that barely exceeds 100 pages, it’s tempting to race to the end. But Keegan’s lapidary style almost demands that her work be consumed slowly, sentence by lovely sentence, as when a character feels “the tail end of a dream—a feeling, like silk—disappearing,” or when a hen’s plumage appears “as though she’d powdered herself before she’d stepped out of the house.” These stories invite rereading to appreciate how a skilled author can construct character and build narrative tension with unaffected grace.

Claire Keegan’s lapidary style demands that her work be consumed slowly, sentence by lovely sentence. Her latest collection, So Late in the Day, will only enhance her increasing regard among American readers.

Jeff Tweedy’s 2020 book, How to Write One Song, offered a practical guide to songwriting—a map of creative processes, daily habits and attitudes that have long sustained the Wilco frontman. It’s only fitting that Tweedy, one of contemporary rock’s most prominent figures, now turns his attention to what happens when he encounters the work of other songwriters and performers. In World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music, Tweedy shares an eclectic and admittedly idiosyncratic catalog of 50 popular tunes that reflect “how songs absorb and enhance our own experiences and store our memories.”

Although icons like Bob Dylan (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”), Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and the Beatles (take your pick) are on the list, Tweedy grants an equally prominent place to a song by a “weird little band” called Souled American, and to one by the late Diane Izzo that doesn’t exist in recorded form. In that sense, World Within a Song isn’t a playlist of greatest hits, or even ones Tweedy considers mandatory listening. As a mildly misfit kid growing up in 1970s Belleville, Illinois, Tweedy knew at an early age he was destined for a music career. He discovered artists like Patti Smith, The Clash and The Replacements, whose songs helped him understand that, while he might have been lonely, he wasn’t ever alone.

Interspersed with Tweedy’s musical picks are bits of memoir he calls “rememories,” mini essays he considers “dreamlike passages recounting specific events in my life.” Some touch on aspects of his musical career, among them a hostile encounter with Timothy B. Schmit, the longtime Eagles vocalist. Most interesting are the deeply personal ones, like his reflections on his close relationship with his late mother. 

Tweedy is a smart, witty and empathetic writer. His unabashed joy in introducing readers to the music that delights him is infectious and will unleash a flood of associations and memories for anyone who shares that passion. More than anything, he wants people to realize that music is as much about how we relate to it as it is about the music itself, and “how much we all can bring to a song as listeners.” World Within a Song will expand your musical horizons and radically increase your enjoyment the next time you tune in.

In World Within a Song, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy introduces readers to the music he loves with unabashed joy.

Aleksandar Hemon’s literary career has been nothing if not diverse, with works that range from the comic novel The Making of Zombie Wars to his acclaimed The Lazarus Project, from collections of essays and stories to his collaboration with Lana Wachowski and David Mitchell on the script for The Matrix Resurrections. The World and All That It Holds launches him yet again into new territory, as his ambitious, elegantly wrought novel melds two love stories that play out amid the devastating global conflicts of the first half of the 20th century.

Rafael Pinto, a poetry-writing Bosnian Jew with a weakness for opiates, witnesses the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife just outside his Sarajevo apothecary shop in August 1914. Shortly afterward, Rafael finds himself conscripted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and fighting in the bloody trenches of World War I, where “nothing happened all the time, and also very slowly.” Rafael falls in love with Osman, another Sarajevan member of his unit, a Muslim man and gifted storyteller with “a knack for fixing problems.”

Rafael’s entanglement in the brutal, pointless conflict is only the beginning of an odyssey that takes him from Europe’s battlefields to the Asian wilderness and on foot across the Chinese desert, then to Shanghai where he experiences life as a refugee in the period that extends from a few years preceding the Japanese invasion of 1937 to the Communist takeover in 1949. For most of that journey, he’s accompanied by Osman’s daughter, Rahela, after Osman disappears. But even after Osman’s physical presence is gone, his bond with Rafael is the source of a sustaining power within this harsh new life, one that slowly deepens Rafael’s affection for Rahela. 

The World and All That It Holds mostly follows the perspectives of Rafael and Rahela, with occasional detours into the memoirs of colorful British spy Edgar Moser-Ethering, who becomes a ubiquitous presence in Rafael’s life.

Hemon’s ability to pack such an epic narrative into 352 pages is impressive. Across all its settings, the tale is enriched by the accumulation of closely observed details. Vivid action sequences are neatly balanced with scenes exploring the characters’ interior lives. Although the story is not overtly religious, Hemon alludes frequently to the biblical account of the Tower of Babel and God’s decision to “confound their speech, so that nobody shall understand,” as well as the Samsara wheel, the symbol of reincarnation in Buddhism and Hinduism. “Just love each other whatever the world you think you might be in,” a character tells Rafael and Osman. The power of love to give meaning to life, even in the worst of circumstances, suffuses this quietly passionate story.

Aleksandar Hemon’s ambitious, elegantly wrought novel melds two love stories that play out amid the devastating global conflicts of the first half of the 20th century.

Even if the word science only conjures up bad memories of frog dissections and failed lab experiments, you’ll find much to enjoy in Dan Levitt’s What’s Gotten Into You: The Story of Your Body’s Atoms, From the Big Bang Through Last Night’s Dinner. Levitt, a writer and producer of science and history documentaries, delivers a survey of life’s building blocks that’s intelligent, accessible and just sheer fun.

Levitt launches his inquiry with two fundamental questions: “What are we actually made of? And where did it come from?” His subsequent hunt for answers begins in an appropriate place: the discovery in the 1930s of what became known as the Big Bang by Belgian physics professor and Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre. Lemaitre‘s story is especially interesting for the way it encapsulates the tension between science and religion that looms over some of the issues in Levitt’s wide-ranging account.

Most of the book’s chapters follow a similar format. Levitt will open his investigation of a specific topic, such as how water appeared on Earth or the race to discover the structure of DNA, with an economical but informative biographical sketch of one or more of the scientists whose work proved pivotal in the field. Then he’ll dive into the science, with a special enthusiasm for the controversies that pitted one expert against another. While some of these researchers—such as Nobel laureates James Watson and Francis Crick, of DNA fame—are well known, others—such as Justus von Liebig, the 19th-century German chemist who pioneered research in the field of nutrition—are not. Levitt devotes extra attention to the role of women in science, noting the discrimination that has often prevented their work from receiving the recognition it deserves.

Levitt has the ability to present abstruse subject matter in a form that’s easily digestible by lay readers. He’s scrupulous about giving equal time to warring scientific combatants and is especially sensitive to the biases (among them, the “Too Weird to Be True” bias) that have dogged even the most brilliant scientists. One especially stimulating discussion plays out in the chapters titled “The Most Famous Experiment” and “The Greatest Mystery,” describing the controversy over the origin of life and whether it was sparked in the Earth’s atmosphere, in outer space or in the depths of the ocean. Extensive endnotes and a bibliography that stretches to 20 pages reveal that Levitt has done his homework.

Readers of What’s Gotten Into You will come away better informed while still appreciating that some of our most fundamental scientific questions have yet to be answered.

In What’s Gotten Into You, Dan Levitt delivers a survey of life’s building blocks that’s intelligent, accessible and just sheer fun.

Donal Ryan may not be as well known outside of Ireland as some of his contemporaries, but his sixth novel, The Queen of Dirt Island, adds to an impressive body of work that should garner him wider recognition. This story of four generations of Irish women fractiously sharing their village home in modern-day County Tipperary has a gentle heart and a spine of steel, its appeal enhanced by Ryan’s understated yet evocative prose.

Only a few days after her birth, Saoirse Aylward loses her father in a car crash, leaving her mother, Eileen, with the task of raising the girl. Eileen is assisted by her opinionated mother-in-law, Mary, who moves into the family home from the nearby farm managed by her two surviving sons, one of whom is arrested for storing guns and explosives for the Irish Republican Army. Ryan elides most of Saoirse’s childhood until, prior to her 18th birthday, a drunken encounter with a singer in a local rock band produces a daughter, Pearl. 

Then Saoirse’s “stupid accidental life” is upended again by the return of the town’s prodigal son, Joshua Elmwood, with his girlfriend, Honey Bartlett. After Honey departs for a filmmaking project, romance blossoms between Saoirse and Josh. It’s an unlikely and rocky pairing, but one that moves Saoirse farther down the path of maturity. This isn’t the story’s only fraught relationship, as Eileen and her brother also war over the humble piece of land that provides the novel’s title. 

Whether Ryan is exploring the shifting dynamics of the Aylward women’s often intense interactions or following the contours of Saoirse and Josh’s tempestuous love affair, he does so with sensitivity and grace. In an unusual technique, each of the book’s chapters comprises two pages, some of them functioning almost as self-contained short stories, others seamlessly moving the plot forward. Ryan is adept at fashioning arresting images to enliven his storytelling, among them Eileen’s “utterances flung around like fistfuls of confetti.”

There is emotional and physical violence in The Queen of Dirt Island, along with tender and deeply felt moments. The novel’s predominant tone is pastoral, consistent with the beautiful Irish landscape Ryan evokes with subtle brushstrokes, and capable of leaving an imprint on the reader’s mind and heart.

This story of four generations of Irish women fractiously sharing their village home in modern-day County Tipperary has a gentle heart and a spine of steel, its appeal enhanced by Donal Ryan’s understated yet evocative prose.

The latest book by journalist Alex Mar (Witches of America) is a valuable contribution to the true crime genre. Taking its title from a verse in the Gospel of Matthew, Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy begins with a heinous murder but then follows the difficult, inspiring path of forgiveness and redemption traveled by those whose lives were forever altered by that crime.

On May 14, 1985, 15-year-old Paula Cooper and three teenage friends entered the Gary, Indiana, home of Ruth Pelke, a widowed Bible teacher and grandmother approaching her 79th birthday. What began as a hastily conceived plan to snatch cash and jewelry ended with Ruth dead on her living room floor, the victim of an attack so ferocious, Mar writes, that it’s almost unimaginable. 

The brutal death of an elderly white woman at the hands of four Black girls in Gary, a city many white residents had fled after the election of its first Black mayor in 1967, sparked public outrage and made prosecutor Jack Crawford’s decision to seek the death penalty an easy one. After pleading guilty without a plea bargain, Paula was sentenced to death, making her, at the time, the youngest person ever to receive the death sentence in modern American legal history and the first female juvenile ever to receive that penalty.

At that point, Paula’s story took an unexpected turn. Sitting in his crane one night at the steel plant where he’d worked for many years, Ruth’s grandson, Bill Pelke, sensed in a moment of profound personal crisis that his grandmother was calling on him to forgive her killer. But Bill went far beyond that single generous act of compassion to embrace an entire life of activism against the death penalty, in solidarity with others who had lost family members to violence. In tandem with Bill’s journey—one that took him across the United States and as far away as the Vatican—Mar describes the efforts of the lawyers who fought tirelessly for the abolition of the death penalty for juveniles.

The details of Paula and Bill’s relationship and how their lives unfolded in the more than four decades after Ruth’s murder are readily available on the internet, but readers should resist the urge to seek them out and instead rely on Mar’s intimate and highly sympathetic account. Anyone moved by Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, will find Mar’s book a compelling companion piece on the issue of crime and punishment in America. It’s a story that beautifully marries tragedy and hope, illuminating some of the worst and best of which human beings are capable.

Alex Mar’s Seventy Times Seven begins with a heinous murder but then follows the inspiring path of redemption traveled by those whose lives were forever altered by that crime.

In September of 1740, a British man-of-war called the Wager sailed from Portsmouth, England, as one of six warships in a squadron bound for South America. Their mission: to harass Spanish naval forces while seeking out a treasure-laden galleon on its way from Mexico to the Philippines during the colorfully named War of Jenkins’ Ear. The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder is bestselling author David Grann’s vivid account of that ill-fated expedition, revealing humanity at its best and worst, from heroism to cannibalism.

Grann focuses his attention on three of the vessel’s crew members: Captain David Cheap, who sailed as the first lieutenant of another ship and inherited his first command of a man-of-war after the death of the Wager’s previous captain; John Bulkeley, the ship’s gunner and a deeply religious man who kept a meticulous journal of the disastrous voyage; and John Byron, an ambitious 16-year-old midshipman whose grandson, Lord Byron, would one day incorporate elements of the Wager’s tragic story into his epic poem “Don Juan.”

David Grann reveals why a disastrous shipwreck from the 1740s struck him as a parable for our own turbulent times.

Informed by the extensive documentary record and enriched by the experience of his own three-week visit to the site where the Wager, a former merchant vessel and therefore the “bastard of the fleet,” ran aground in one of the violent storms endemic to the area near Patagonia, Grann tells this story with a keen eye for arresting (and at times terrifying) details. Thanks to his sure-handed ability to create scenes with novelistic immediacy, it’s easy to feel the mounting desperation of the seamen as their numbers shrank in the face of relentless winter weather, disease and starvation. And yet, despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges, which pummeled the sailors as regularly as the towering waves that pounded their ill-equipped ship, a small remnant of the original crew was able to endure.

After 33 survivors improbably arrived in South America in two makeshift vessels, and then later sailed home to England, the British Admiralty felt bound to convene a court martial to address allegations of mutiny and the claim that Captain Cheap had murdered a member of the crew in cold blood. Grann writes that he has “tried to present all sides, leaving it to you to render the ultimate verdict—history’s judgment.” However, the trial’s outcome is less important than the way it demonstrates how “empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell,” as Grann writes. “But just as critical are the stories they don’t—the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.” His thrilling book is an admirable example of how that veil of ignorance can be pierced

David Grann’s narrative nonfiction masterpiece about an 18th-century man-of-war that ran aground in South America reveals humanity at its best and worst, from heroism to cannibalism.
Interview by

In 1740, a ship called the Wager departed from England to pursue a Spanish galleon filled with treasure. However, before the crew could accomplish their mission, they wrecked on an island off the coast of Patagonia. What happened next—from the men’s harrowing survival to the unexpected fallout once they returned to England—is expertly told by National Book Award finalist and Edgar Award winner David Grann in The Wager.

Your previous books have dealt with a range of historical eras and subjects. What first sparked your curiosity about this story of a British naval expedition in the mid-18th century?
I came across an 18th-century eyewitness account of the expedition by John Byron, who had been a 16-year-old midshipman on the Wager when the voyage began. Though the account was written in archaic English, and the lettering was faded and hard to decipher, it instantly sparked my curiosity. Here was one of the most extraordinary sagas I had ever heard of: a crew battling typhoons, tidal waves and scurvy; a shipwreck on a desolate island off the Chilean coast of Patagonia, where the castaways slowly descended into a real-life Lord of the Flies, with warring factions, murders, mutiny and cannibalism.

And that was only part of the saga. Byron and several other survivors, after completing extraordinary castaway voyages, made it back to England. (By then, Byron was 22.) They were summoned to face a court-martial for their alleged misdeeds and feared they would be hanged. In the hopes of saving their own lives, they all offered their own wildly conflicting versions of what had happened, and this unleashed another kind of war: a war over the truth. There were competing narratives, planted disinformation and allegations of “fake news.” So even though the story took place in the 1740s, it struck me as a parable for our own turbulent times. And if all this wasn’t enough to spark my curiosity, John Byron became the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, whose work was influenced by what he called “my grand-dad’s ‘Narrative.’”

Read our starred review of ‘The Wager’ by David Grann.

Your descriptions of what it was like to be on a British man-of-war or stranded on a desolate island are so specific and vivid. What kind of research enabled you to write with this level of detail and intimacy?
I was amazed that, even after more than two and half centuries had passed, there was still a trove of firsthand documents about the calamitous expedition. They included not only washed-out logbooks but also moldering correspondence, diaries and muster books. Many of these records had somehow survived tempests, cannon battles and shipwreck. I was also able to draw on court-martial transcripts, Admiralty reports, contemporaneous newspaper accounts, sea ballads and drawings made by members of the expedition. All of these sources of information, as well as the vivid sea narratives published by many of the survivors, hopefully help to bring this gripping history to life.

You personally took a journey to the site of the shipwreck that stranded the crew of the Wager off the coast of South America. How did that experience enhance the telling of this story?
After a couple of years of doing the kind of research most suited to my physical abilities—that is, combing through archives—I feared that I could never fully grasp what the castaways had experienced unless I visited the place now known as Wager Island. At Chiloé, an island off the coast of Chile, I hired a captain with a small boat to guide me to Wager Island, which is about 350 miles to the south and situated in the Gulf of Sorrows—or, as some prefer to call it, the Gulf of Pain. After several days of winding through the sheltered channels of Patagonia, we entered the open Pacific Ocean, where I had at least a glimpse of the terrifying seas that had wrecked the Wager. We were caught in a storm, engulfed by mountainous waves, and our boat was tossed about so violently that I had to hunker down on the floor; otherwise, I might have been thrown and broken a limb. Thankfully, the captain was extremely capable and led us safely to Wager Island. We anchored for the night and at dawn climbed in an inflatable boat and went ashore.

The island remains a place of wild desolation—mountainous, rain-drenched, freezing, wind-swept and utterly barren. Unlike the castaways, who had only scraps of clothing, I was bundled up in a winter coat with gloves and a wool hat. Yet I was still bone cold. Near the area where the castaways had built their encampment, we found some stalks of celery, like the kind they had eaten. But there was virtually no other nourishment. At last, I grasped why one British officer had called the island a place where “the soul of man dies in him.”

“Even though the story took place in the 1740s, it struck me as a parable for our own turbulent times.”

Book jacket image for The Wager by David Grann

Many of the scenes in The Wager have a novelistic immediacy. What are some of the techniques you used to bring those scenes to life while hewing to the facts as you discovered them?
The most important technique, I think, was simply the narrative structure. The book shifts among the competing perspectives of three people onboard the Wager: the captain, David Cheap; the gunner, John Bulkeley; and the midshipman, John Byron. Because of all the underlying research materials, I tried my best to let the reader see and feel history unfolding through their eyes.

Speaking of novels, you note that the story of the Wager influenced well-known writers such as Herman Melville and Patrick O’Brian. How did that play out?
Occasionally, a great teller of sea tales would be drawn to the saga of the Wager. In his 1850 novel White-Jacket, Melville notes that the “remarkable and most interesting narratives” of the castaways’ suffering make for fine reading on “a boisterous March night, with the casement rattling in your ear, and the chimney-stacks blowing down upon the pavement, bubbling with rain-drops.” In 1959, O’Brian published The Unknown Shore, a novel inspired by the Wager disaster, which provided a template for his subsequent masterful series set during the Napoleonic Wars. And it wasn’t only novelists who studied the reports of the expedition; so did philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, as well as the scientist Charles Darwin.

In an author’s note, you write, “I’ve tried to present all sides, leaving it to you to render the ultimate verdict—history’s judgment.” In the chapters that follow, you remain scrupulous about allowing readers to decide for themselves what happened on this ill-fated mission. What made you decide to take that approach?
I thought it was the most honest and transparent way of documenting the murky truth. Each survivor from the expedition was shading or eliding the facts, hoping to emerge as the hero of the story and avoid being hanged. Whereas one officer might only admit that he had “proceeded to extremities,” another witness would disclose, in his own account, how that officer had actually shot a seaman right in the head. By considering each competing account, readers can hopefully discern how the historical record was being manipulated, and see the past in a fresh light.

“At last, I grasped why one British officer had called the island a place where ‘the soul of man dies in him.’”

You describe great heroism and real depravity, along with a range of other character traits, exhibited by the crew of the Wager. What does this story tell us about how human beings succeed or fail in the face of extreme hardship?
The story illuminates the contradictory impulses of people under duress. When the castaways worked together, they improved their chances of survival, building an outpost on the island with shelters and irrigation systems. But many of the men eventually succumbed to their own desperate self-interest and became pitted viciously against one another, which only fueled their destruction. The unpredictable nature of humans, including the good and the bad, was what surprised me most while researching and writing this book.

Near the end of the book, you write, “Empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell, but just as critical are the stories they don’t—the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.” What does the story of the Wager say specifically about empires and colonialism?
The history of the Wager underscores the ravaging nature of imperialism and colonialism. British authorities seemed to recognize that the scandalous Wager affair threatened to undercut the central claim used to justify the ruthless expansion of the empire: that its civilization was somehow superior. The Wager’s officers and crew, these supposed apostles of the Enlightenment, had descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity, behaving more like brutes than gentlemen. Some of those in power thus tried to put forward their own versions of events and rewrite history. 

I think the Wager affair also shows how some people’s stories are erased from the history books. Unlike many of the survivors, one man named John Duck, who was a free Black seaman on the Wager, could never share his testimony. After enduring the shipwreck and a long castaway voyage, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. There is no record of his fate. His story is one of the many that can never be told.

“The Wager’s officers and crew, these supposed apostles of the Enlightenment, had descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity, behaving more like brutes than gentlemen.”

Congratulations on the release of Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of your book Killers of the Flower Moon this May. There are reports that Scorsese has also optioned The Wager for a movie. Can you discuss that?
Scorsese and his team worked with such care in adapting Killers of the Flower Moon; they worked closely with members of the Osage Nation to faithfully render this important part of history. And so I’m honored that Scorsese has decided to team up again with Leonardo DiCaprio to develop the story of The Wager

What can you tell us about your next project?
Well, I am looking now for a new book subject, so please send any ideas!

Headshot of David Grann by Michael Lionstar

In the bestselling author’s latest narrative nonfiction masterpiece, he revives an 18th-century tale of shipwreck, mutiny, murder and “fake news.”

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