Harvey Freedenberg

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.”

With the passing of Ward Just in 2019, the literary world lost a fine writer who was comfortable grappling with the moral dilemmas surrounding the exercise of power and the lives of those who wield it. Journalist and novelist Elliot Ackerman’s fifth novel, Halcyon, suggests that he may be one of the inheritors of Just’s preoccupations. Blending alternative history with science fiction, Ackerman artfully explores several provocative issues that have become flash points in contemporary America.

The year is 2004, and the novel’s narrator, Martin Neumann, is a college history professor whose specialty is the American Civil War. He’s fitfully engaged in work on a book about the role of compromise in American life amid a society whose “grim national mood” he describes as “rage-ennui.” He’s spending his sabbatical ensconced in a comfortable guest cottage on the premises of the titular house in rural Virginia, owned by retired attorney and Washington power player Robert Ableson and his wife, Mary. 

In Ackerman’s imagined America, Al Gore edged out George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, following Bill Clinton’s resignation over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Although the country still sustained a terrorist attack on 9/11, there was no invasion of Iraq, and Osama bin Laden was killed in December 2001. But most startlingly, the public learned that the Gore administration quietly has been spearheading scientific research into the field of cryoregeneration—bringing humans back from the dead—and one of the participants in the experiment is none other than Martin’s host, Robert.

As he reemerges into the world five years after his death, following a year of social quarantine, Robert quickly becomes embroiled in current controversies, attempting to thwart a drive to remove a Confederate monument from the Gettysburg battlefield and defending a sexual harassment claim filed by one of his former subordinates. His revitalization also sparks a thorny legal dispute about the status of the inheritances received by the heirs of a person who was once dead but now is very much alive. Martin observes these events from the periphery, describing them with a detached but sympathetic curiosity.

Early in the novel, Martin asks what “were the minor events of today that would forever change the trajectory of the future?” Ackerman prefers challenging questions like these over convenient answers. With this choice, he leaves ample room for readers to engage in leaps of imagination as bold as the ones he’s undertaken. Anyone who accepts that invitation will come away from this ingenious story with fresh ideas of what past, present and future truly mean.

Elliot Ackerman prefers challenging questions over convenient answers, leaving ample room for readers to engage in leaps of imagination as bold as the ones he’s undertaken.

Lorrie Moore’s fiction has always defied easy categorization, but it’s consistently smart, witty and thought-provoking. Her fourth novel—and her first in 14 years—touches all those bases. I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home is an unusual but surprisingly affecting story about life and death and the liminal space that separates them. 

Moore’s protagonist, Finn, is a young high school teacher who teaches what he calls “Alt-Consensus History,” an attempt to “reclaim the term conspiracy theory” on subjects such as whether the first moon landing ever happened. He’s been placed on a paid leave for either his curricular choices or rebuffing the advances of the headmaster’s wife. His older brother, Max, is dying in a Bronx hospice, and they pass the time by watching the 2016 World Series, which ended with the Chicago Cubs winning their first title in more than a century. As the teams compete in game after game, in what feels like a potentially infinite duration, Finn feels as if his brother is “rooting for both teams to go on forever so he wouldn’t die.”

Amid his deepening sadness over his brother’s imminent passing, Finn receives an urgent call to return home to deal with a crisis involving his “mad and maddening” ex-girlfriend Lily. She’s a bright but unstable woman who provides “laugh therapy” as a clown to brighten the lives of her clients, mostly children. Finn seems as reluctant to abandon his attachment to her as he is to bid farewell to his brother.

At the heart of the novel is Finn and Lily’s road trip through an autumnal American heartland, one of the stranger journeys in recent fiction. As they drive along roads that feel like “an unfurling ribbon without a gift,” they dissect the reasons for their relationship’s demise and spar—sometimes seriously, other times with the dry, often black humor that’s a characteristic of Moore’s writing—over subjects such as the inscription on Finn’s headstone. (He wants one that includes his phone number and the words “ATTENTION: UNDERLYING CONDITIONS.”) “Jokes are flotation devices on the great sea of sorrowful life,” Lily observes. “They are the exit signs in a very dark room.” 

Interspersed with the account of their travels are letters from a woman named Elizabeth, who runs a boardinghouse in the years immediately following the Civil War, to her sister. While their relationship to Finn and Lily’s story isn’t immediately apparent, Moore deftly ties them together before the end.  

Moore’s ambitions in this brief novel are modest, even as the subjects she tackles are among the most profound facing human beings. If there’s a book that earns the description tragicomic, it’s certainly this one. 

If there’s a book that earns the description tragicomic, the long-awaited fourth novel from acclaimed writer Lorrie Moore is it.

From the outside, the Gardners of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, have a life anyone would envy. But as Adrienne Brodeur (Wild Game) reveals in her thoughtful first novel, a shiny exterior often conceals secrets and deceptions no admiring outsider could imagine.

Set during the spring and summer of 2016, Little Monsters focuses on Adam Gardner, the family patriarch, and his two adult children, Ken and Abby. Adam is a prominent marine biologist who’s dangerously stoking a manic phase of his bipolar disorder to discover the secret of whale communication he is certain will earn him scientific immortality. Ken, on the verge of a move into the major leagues of real estate development, is plotting a congressional campaign in the next election cycle, but there are worrisome cracks in the foundation of his marriage to Jenny, the daughter of a prominent Boston family. And Abby, a talented but underappreciated painter, looks forward to the exposure a profile in a major art magazine will bring, while dealing with the early stages of pregnancy. All of this is complicated by the arrival of Steph Murphy, a Boston cop and young mother who’s spending the summer on the Cape and inching closer to the Gardner family for a reason they can’t grasp. 

As the gorgeous seaside summer rolls on, Ken and Abby plan a party to celebrate Adam’s 70th birthday. The siblings see it as a way to honor their father’s life and achievements, while he perceives it as another signpost on his inexorable slide into professional irrelevance. In this process, shards of the Gardners’ past—ones that carry them back more than three decades to the sudden death of Ken and Abby’s mother shortly after Abby’s birth, its impact on the children’s relationship growing up and the echoes of that tragedy into the present—emerge in unpredictable and even dangerous ways to reopen old wounds and inflict new ones. 

Brodeur effectively juggles these interlocking perspectives in chapters that shift seamlessly among the viewpoints of the Gardners, Jenny and Steph, sustaining the novel’s tension until a climactic scene at Adam’s elegant birthday party. Brodeur, who grew up and still has a home on Cape Cod, makes effective use of her familiarity with the captivating qualities of that setting, its natural beauty and wildlife, to lend texture to the story. William Faulkner’s reminder that “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past” is one that applies with considerable emotional force to this quietly engaging novel.

William Faulkner’s reminder that “the past isn't dead. It’s not even past" applies with considerable emotional force to Wild Game author Adrienne Brodeur’s quietly engaging first novel.

Anyone seeking medical care for a serious illness wants certainty in their diagnosis and treatment. The unsettling message of Random Acts of Medicine: The Hidden Forces That Sway Doctors, Impact Patients, and Shape Our Health, however, is that those understandable desires are often undermined by pure chance. 

In their revealing book, Harvard Medical School professor and economist Anupam B. Jena and critical care physician and health care policy researcher Christopher Worsham rely on natural experiments—studies based on collecting and analyzing data from random events occurring in the real world instead of controlled environments—to illustrate the role that randomness plays in America’s health care system. It’s a system that, in 2019 alone, spent $3.8 trillion—17.7% of the United States’ gross domestic product—and yet is “inefficient, inequitable, and poorly performing compared with other wealthy nations,” they write.

Jena and Worsham report on numerous studies, some of which they helped conduct, that attempt to answer some vexing questions: Why do children born in the fall have markedly higher influenza vaccination rates than their counterparts with summer birthdays? Why, despite similar conditions, are some patients more likely than others to receive an opioid prescription in the emergency room and maintain that prescription long after they’ve returned home? Why is an obstetrician more likely to perform an unplanned cesarean section if their previous patient’s vaginal birth presented complications? The answers, they argue, can provide critical insights into how to improve the quality of health care.

The book’s sometimes whimsical chapter titles conceal serious findings. “What Happens When All the Cardiologists Leave Town?” examines the survival outcomes for high-risk cardiac patients who are hospitalized during the annual professional conference for interventional cardiologists, versus those treated when those same cardiologists are back home. “What Do Cardiac Surgeons and Used-Car Salesmen Have in Common?” considers “left-digit bias,” a cognitive blind spot Jena and Worsham believe explains the differing care patients with heart attack symptoms who are just under 40 sometimes receive compared to those who have recently passed that milestone. 

If these unexpected insights sound familiar to readers of books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, there’s a reason. In addition to his professional duties, Jena hosts the podcast “Freakonomics, M.D.,” where he explores similar behavioral economics issues. Though their tone is occasionally lighthearted, he and Worsham repeatedly drive home a serious point: The American health care system is failing to deliver optimal care, often due to the unquestioned assumptions and inherent biases of its providers. If this provocative book can spark conversations about how to examine these persistent problems with fresh eyes, its authors have accomplished something truly important.

In their revealing book, Anupam B. Jena and Christopher Worsham illustrate the role that pure chance plays in medicine.

With five novels to her credit, Martha McPhee has well-established credentials as a storyteller. In her memoir, Omega Farm, she drops the veil of invention to share an intensely personal tale of her attempt to reclaim a troubled past amid a ceaselessly demanding present.

In mid-March 2020, McPhee, her husband and fellow writer, Mark, and their children Livia and Jasper, decamped from their New York City apartment to the eponymous farm—a 45-acre property about 10 miles outside her birthplace of Princeton, New Jersey—to escape the COVID-19 pandemic and help provide care for her mother, well-known photographer Pryde Brown, whose decade-long dementia was deepening. McPhee, the youngest of four children of Brown and famed New Yorker writer John McPhee, had spent most of her childhood at the farm after her parents divorced when she was four and her mother began a romantic relationship with Dan Sullivan, the farm’s owner, that lasted until his death in 1994.

McPhee’s memoir takes stories of growing up amid the “big sprawling chaotic mess” of Omega Farm with her three sisters, Sullivan’s five children and a 10th child produced from the Sullivan-Brown union, and seamlessly connects them to reflections on how the echoes of those experiences complicate her struggles with the demands of caregiving and her own present-day familial relationships. Sullivan, an unlicensed Gestalt therapist, is “something of a con man, [a] serial philanderer,” and a charismatic, if sometimes disordered figure. It soon becomes clear that Sullivan’s repeated sexual abuse of his stepdaughters lies at the core of her difficulty coming to terms with her memories.

If all this weren’t enough, urbanite McPhee is called upon to shoulder the burden of superintending a haphazardly cared-for property that includes a 35-acre forest. While confronting an unruly strand of bamboo and a failed septic system, she learns that Omega Farm’s population of ash trees has been infested with a devastating pest: the emerald ash borer. Soon, she devotes herself to the task of forest preservation, dealing with a land steward, unscrupulous loggers and the management hunter she hires to help suppress the ravenous deer population. Throughout, McPhee candidly discloses the frustrations and satisfactions of this worthy but all-consuming project.

McPhee is an efficient, graceful writer, who makes no effort to spare her own flaws even as she searches for the roots of her mature turmoil in the shortcomings of adults who failed in the fundamental task of protecting her younger self. In barely three years since its onset, the COVID-19 pandemic already has produced a small shelf of impressive memoirs. Martha McPhee’s Omega Farm easily earns itself a place in that collection.

Novelist Martha McPhee’s debut memoir details her work on herself and a family farm, candidly disclosing the frustrations and satisfactions of these worthy but all-consuming projects.

Jayne Anne Phillips transitioned from highly praised short stories to novels in 1984, and several years have stretched between each new work. But that’s only part of what makes Night Watch such a meaningful literary event. Tracing an arc from catastrophic damage and loss to recovery through the Civil War and its aftermath, Phillips marries a timeless emotional quality and utterly contemporary sensibility to create a satisfying work in her first novel in a decade.

Much of the story is told in the observant but occasionally naive voice of ConaLee, a 12-year-old girl born in the first year of the war in the mountainous territory of West Virginia. She’s the offspring of a couple who migrated north from a plantation in South Carolina’s Low Country in the company of a compassionate “woods doctor” named Dearbhla, whom the girl thinks of as her “granny neighbor.” When the novel opens in 1874, ConaLee and her mother are being deposited at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (a real institution) by a former Confederate soldier ConaLee has come to know as “Papa,” even though he has been physically and psychologically abusing her mother.

More than a decade earlier, ConaLee’s real father had also shed his identity to enlist in the Union Army as a sharpshooter. After he was grievously wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, he spent months at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, recovering from his injuries. He eventually healed physically, though with all memory of his former life erased. The novel devotes most of its attention to ConaLee’s mother’s return to sanity through the innovative methods implemented at the hospital by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, while the fate of her husband remains a lingering mystery.

How Phillips knits these two main threads together won’t be revealed here, because the novel features a healthy number of complications that bring the story to its resolution and will delight fans of plot-driven fiction. Phillips is also a sensuous writer, and the novel features numerous examples of captivating depictions of unspoiled nature. One of the most vivid scenes is a description of the sharpshooter’s last experience of combat that captures both the terror and exhilaration of war. Night Watch is escapist in the best sense of the word, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the experience of a distant era and identify deeply with the struggles of the people who lived through it.

Night Watch is escapist in the best sense of the word, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the experience of a distant era and identify deeply with the struggles of the people who lived through it.

In Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers, Oxford University Shakespeare studies professor Emma Smith offers a lively and engaging survey of the history of the book, focusing on the “material combination of form and content” she calls “bookhood.” It’s a “book about books, rather than words,” that describes with both insight and affection the enduring power of the book as a physical object.

Organized thematically (Smith even suggests the self-contained chapters can be read in any order), Portable Magic covers an impressive amount of ground with efficiency. The opening essay, on Gutenberg’s “invention” of movable type in the 15th century, sets the book’s often iconoclastic tone. Pointing out that this method was used in Asia almost a century before Gutenberg, Smith argues that the idea that print is a Western innovation is a myth, invoked primarily in the service of European colonization.

In subsequent chapters, Smith ranges widely across literary history, unafraid to express strong opinions without dogmatism. Some of the topics she takes on include the history of paperback books and the practices of giving books as gifts and book collecting. In the latter, she tells the story of Harry Elkins Widener, a well-known book collector from Philadelphia who sank to the bottom of the ocean with the Titanic, carrying a 1598 collection of Francis Bacon’s essays in his pocket. Other essays consider the depiction of books in works of art and the central role of religious scriptures, as well as oddities like books bound in human skin and the 17th-century Venetian book containing a small pistol that could be fired using its silk bookmark.

Smith devotes a chapter to the subject of the destruction of books, too, noting that book burning is “powerfully symbolic and practically almost entirely ineffectual.” The publishing business’s practice of pulping books returned from retailers (some 30% to 40% of those shipped), she explains, has eliminated far more books than any conflagration. In two chapters, one centered entirely on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Smith reviews some of the contentious, and not always unambiguous, issues surrounding free expression and censorship.

Though Portable Magic reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight the thoughtful general reader. Any bibliophile will come away from it with a renewed appreciation for books and the central role they still play in our lives.

Though Emma Smith’s lively and engaging history of the book reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight general readers and bibliophiles everywhere.

In Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers, Oxford University Shakespeare studies professor Emma Smith offers a lively and engaging survey of the history of the book, focusing on the “material combination of form and content” she calls “bookhood.” It’s a “book about books, rather than words,” that describes with both insight and affection the enduring power of the book as a physical object.

Organized thematically (Smith even suggests the self-contained chapters can be read in any order), Portable Magic covers an impressive amount of ground with efficiency. The opening essay, on Gutenberg’s “invention” of movable type in the 15th century, sets the book’s often iconoclastic tone. Pointing out that this method was used in Asia almost a century before Gutenberg, Smith argues that the idea that print is a Western innovation is a myth, invoked primarily in the service of European colonization.

In subsequent chapters, Smith ranges widely across literary history, unafraid to express strong opinions without dogmatism. Some of the topics she takes on include the history of paperback books and the practices of giving books as gifts and book collecting. In the latter, she tells the story of Harry Elkins Widener, a well-known book collector from Philadelphia who sank to the bottom of the ocean with the Titanic, carrying a 1598 collection of Francis Bacon’s essays in his pocket. Other essays consider the depiction of books in works of art and the central role of religious scriptures, as well as oddities like books bound in human skin and the 17th-century Venetian book containing a small pistol that could be fired using its silk bookmark.

Smith devotes a chapter to the subject of the destruction of books, too, noting that book burning is “powerfully symbolic and practically almost entirely ineffectual.” The publishing business’s practice of pulping books returned from retailers (some 30% to 40% of those shipped), she explains, has eliminated far more books than any conflagration. In two chapters, one centered entirely on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Smith reviews some of the contentious, and not always unambiguous, issues surrounding free expression and censorship.

Though Portable Magic reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight the thoughtful general reader. Any bibliophile will come away from it with a renewed appreciation for books and the central role they still play in our lives.

Though Emma Smith’s lively and engaging history of the book reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight general readers and bibliophiles everywhere.

It’s been seven years since the publication of John Irving’s last novel (Avenue of Mysteries), so for fans who’ve followed him over the course of a career spanning more than half a century, The Last Chairlift will feel like settling into a well-worn pair of slippers. They’ll have plenty of time to savor that comfortable sensation in this 900-page family story that’s packed with emotion, insight and compassion for our flawed humanity.

“My life could be a movie,” writes Adam Brewster, the first-person narrator of the novel, and there’s definitely a cinematic quality to the story. (The novel includes two of Adam’s full-length screenplays, and a character from the film business plays a central role.) Like Irving, Adam was born in 1942, raised in the town of Exeter, New Hampshire, and is a novelist with a “disaster-prone imagination” who writes several bestselling books after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. These are far from the only correlations between creator and protagonist.

The Last Chairlift follows Adam from birth through late middle age, and much of the story is animated by his search for the man who fathered him in Aspen, Colorado, at the real-life Hotel Jerome. Adam is raised by his ski instructor mother, Rachel, and, as he enters his teens, a stepfather, Elliot Barlow. Elliot eventually undergoes a gender transition, and Rachel settles into a long-term relationship with Molly, whom she meets at a New Hampshire ski resort. Two other characters play major roles: Adam’s cousin Nora and her nonspeaking partner, Emily, who perform a standup routine called “Two Dykes, One Who Talks” at a New York City comedy club with the lugubrious name of the Gallows Lounge.

Along with raising questions of sexual identity and gender bias, The Last Chairlift nods prominently to Irving’s earlier novels The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, and features many of his familiar narrative flourishes: murders, wrestling, spectacular accidents (a lightning strike and an avalanche-caused train derailment, for starters), pointed social commentary on subjects such as the Vietnam War and the AIDS epidemic, and loads of dark humor. Irving has long acknowledged his debt to Charles Dickens, and the novel does have its Dickensian moments, but the work whose spirit hovers most prominently over this story is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a favorite of several characters and a frequent reference point.

“Unrevised, real life is just mess,” Adam writes in one of his screenplays, and Irving has served up a substantial helping of that messiness in this empathetic novel. With Irving celebrating his 80th birthday earlier this year, his publisher has announced that The Last Chairlift will be his last big novel. For all the enjoyment more modest works may bring, this one is a fitting valediction to his distinguished literary career. 

With John Irving celebrating his 80th birthday earlier this year, his publisher has announced that The Last Chairlift will be his last big novel. For all the enjoyment more modest works may bring, this one is a fitting valediction to his distinguished literary career.

In his 2021 book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders turned to Russian literary giants like Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy to provide the source material for a stimulating master class on the craft of the short story. With Liberation Day, Saunders offers up nine of his own inimitable stories, each serving to enhance his status as a contemporary master of the form. It’s his fifth collection, featuring four new stories and five previously published in The New Yorker.

Saunders has a fondness for challenging readers by dropping them into an alien environment and then patiently revealing details that bring a hazy picture into sharp focus, gradually making it all feel uncomfortably familiar. That’s true of the novella-length title story, in which a group of characters, led by the narrator, Jeremy, is programmed to deliver reenactments of historical events—in this case a graphic rendering of Custer’s “last stand” at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In “Ghoul,” another unfortunate coterie serves as actors in an underground amusement park, slowly discovering, to their horror, the truth of their plight. And in “Elliot Spencer,” the already damaged titular character finds himself manipulated by an unscrupulous group of political activists.

Not all of Saunders’ stories qualify as material for an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” “A Thing at Work” is a nightmarish version of “The Office,” shifting seamlessly among the perspectives of four characters in a chess game of escalating retribution, while “Mother’s Day” explores the bitterness that remains between two aging women who once loved the same man. “Love Letter” is a moving and at times chilling letter, written by a grandfather to grandson, that serves as both an apologia and a warning. The letter describes a turbulent political era uncomfortably similar to our own, when the grandfather and his wife watched as the TV “blared this litany of things that had never happened, that we could never have imagined happening,” all the while assuming “that those things could and would soon be undone and that all would return to normal.” 

The volume concludes with the small gem “My House,” a haunting tribute to the persistence of desire and human folly, whose seven pages are a gorgeous example of Saunders’ ability to evoke heightened emotion with the most economical prose. 

Describing the work of his Russian subjects in Swim, Saunders wrote that they “seemed to regard fiction not as something decorative but as a vital moral-ethical tool.” In Liberation Day, Saunders is actuated by similar concerns, focusing his attention on how, for better or worse, we weigh the moral choices we’re called upon to make and how we live with the consequences.

In his fifth story collection, George Saunders focuses his attention on how, for better or worse, we weigh the moral choices we’re called upon to make and how we live with the consequences.

Ever since the publication of her first novel, Jack (1989), and continuing through her 2018 story collection, Days of Awe, A.M. Homes has focused with laserlike precision on some of the darkest corners of contemporary American life. It makes sense, then, that in her provocative novel The Unfolding, she would turn to a bitingly satirical exploration of our current political predicament. 

Homes’ novel smartly imagines the machinations of a shadowy group of rich and powerful men who organize for action in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Calling themselves the “Forever Men,” they’re led by a character identified only as “the Big Guy,” who divides his time between a Wyoming ranch and a luxurious home in Palm Springs, California. There’s also a retired general with connections at the deepest levels of the American security establishment, a Texas judge and a “mad scientist” whose expertise includes a gift for spotting emerging trends.

When they’re not riding in a hot air balloon or participating in target practice, the men ponder in self-aggrandizing terms “how to reclaim our America, a traditional America that honors the dreams of our forefathers.” In truth, the heart of their project is ensuring the preservation of an American democracy that they believe is about “capitalism, guns, and lower taxes.” The suggestion of a “seamless transition unfolding in the corridors of power, a slow roll to the right that no one sees coming,” has an eerily familiar feel.

But even as the conspirators plot to wrest America from the Obama coalition and return it securely to the control of their fellow wealthy white men, the Big Guy must deal with a complicated assortment of challenges closer to home. His wife’s alcoholism is worsening, and his independent-minded 18-year-old daughter, safely ensconced in an all-girls boarding school in Virginia, is beginning to formulate her own ideas of how the world should to work. When the Big Guy is forced to reveal a long-buried family secret, his once-tidy life teeters on the edge of implosion. 

Homes ends her story on January 20, 2009, Obama’s inauguration day, before the group’s hostile takeover plan is actually set in motion. If only for that reason, The Unfolding is a novel that cries out for a sequel. On the other hand, Homes cannily suggests, maybe that sequel is playing out right before our eyes.

Through the story of a shadowy group of rich and powerful men who organize for action in the aftermath of Barack Obama's election in 2008, A.M. Homes offers a bitingly satirical exploration of our current political predicament.

Like Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Mohsin Hamid’s fifth novel, The Last White Man, awakens one morning to find that he’s undergone a startling change. But instead of assuming the form of an insect, Anders, who went to sleep a white man, rises to discover that his skin has “turned a deep and undeniable brown.” Hamid, whose previous novel, Exit West, explored the plight of refugees and the issue of immigration through the lens of magical realism, now employs a similar technique to consider the concept of race in this thoughtful allegory.

Once Anders overcomes his initial shock and summons the courage to re-enter the world in his changed condition, he discovers, to his surprise (if not necessarily relief), that his altered appearance is “not unique, nor contagious.” When he returns to the gym, he finds himself suddenly contemplating the possibility of a different relationship with the “dark-skinned cleaning guy,” but Anders’ interactions become increasingly strained. Through his eyes, and those of his girlfriend, Oona, a yoga instructor who must “will herself to see Anders” in the man who, in reality, is different only in a superficial way, Hamid subtly exposes how judgments of others are so often based on the most superficial characteristics, like skin color.

Hamid only alludes to the dislocation that results from the gradual but inexorable physical transformation of more and more people in the unnamed town and country where the novel is set. Mentions of riots and kidnappings give a sense that society is spinning out of control and hint at the breadth of the disruption, but the struggles of Anders and Oona remain in the foreground.

But Hamid doesn’t confine his attention to The Last White Man’s theme of racial identity. This is also a novel about families, and specifically about the complex relationships between adult children and their parents. Anders’ father, who’s entering the final phase of a terminal illness, is baffled by his son’s changed appearance, and yet he provides a safe haven when white vigilantes arrive at Anders’ door. Oona’s mother, in contrast, is terrified by the present events, her anxiety fueled by the apocalyptic conspiracy theories she consumes obsessively on television and the internet. For both Anders and Oona, the limits of filial love are put to the test.

In recent years, and increasingly since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, there have been countless sociological and political analyses of Americans’ fraught encounters with the construct of race. Hamid adds a worthy voice to the conversation and reminds us yet again that fiction sometimes provides the most direct path to truth.

With his fifth novel, a thoughtful allegory featuring a Gregor Samsa-esque physical transformation of light skin to dark, Mohsin Hamid reminds us yet again that fiction sometimes provides the most direct path to truth.

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