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Montserrat grew up gorging herself on classic horror films with her best friend, Tristán, reveling in the craft of suspense, blood and terror. Now a sound editor whose projects are parceled out each week by her misogynistic boss, Montserrat still loves film and her role in creating it. But more and more, her boss is assigning the work to younger editors who can be paid less to do the same job. Tristán’s lot is no better: Once a rising soap opera actor, his life and career were derailed 10 years ago in a tragic accident that left his superstar girlfriend dead. So when Tristán’s neighbor, the legendary horror director Abel Urueta, asks them to help him finish a film that was supposedly imbued with a magical spell by a Nazi defector, the two figure that they have little to lose. But as Tristán begins to see gruesome visions of his dead girlfriend and Montserrat is stalked by a mysterious, shadowy figure, they begin to suspect that there was more danger to Urueta’s crackpot scheme than he let on. 

After bringing new life to the haunted house (Mexican Gothic) and the evil scientific genius (The Daughter of Doctor Moreau) tropes, author Silvia Moreno-Garcia puts a new spin on Nazi occultists and eldritch rituals in this love letter to classic horror cinema. Much like the horror films to which it pays homage, Silver Nitrate has deliberate pacing and deep character development, but these elements don’t hinder its capacity for utter terror, as it summons the fear of what’s hiding at the edge of your vision, just out of sight in the dark. Moreno-Garcia plays in this space well, recognizing that when the inexplicable happens, the subsequent doubting of your own sanity can be just as frightening as the initial event. After all, as Montserrat points out, the fear of being cursed can be much more powerful than the curse itself. 

While the horror is effective and then some, the sentence-by-sentence craft of Silver Nitrate is not to be overlooked. Moreno-Garcia’s prose is enchanting, full of perfect phrases that dot every page. Whether they are describing the brilliant whites produced on old film or the visage of a ghostly apparition, her sentences deliver tidy packages of imagery like motes of light in the darkness, their beauty so great that sometimes you forget—just for a moment—about the things that go bump in the night.

Mexican Gothic author Silvia Moreno-Garcia puts a new spin on Nazi occultists and eldritch rituals in Silver Nitrate, a love letter to classic horror cinema.
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Even though Shakespeare refers to the great Egyptian queen as both “tawny” and “black” and his English contemporaries understood Egyptians to be dark-skinned, why did a major British production of Antony and Cleopatra not cast a Black Cleopatra until Doña Croll in 1991? Because too many of the Bard’s admirers have failed to address, or even notice, race in his plays.

Farah Karim-Cooper, a Pakistani American professor of literature and Shakespeare studies at King’s College London, challenges that willful ignorance in The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race. Karim-Cooper, who also serves as Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, argues that the bad alternatives to an honest conversation about race in Shakespeare are either to dismiss his work or stubbornly cling to the stale tradition of brushing aside race—both of which oppose her desire for the plays to speak to a wider public.

Aiming to include non-academic readers in her audience, Karim-Cooper takes a close look at characters who are clearly people of color: Othello, Aaron the Moor and the Prince of Morocco. She considers more ambiguous cases, like Cleopatra and Caliban, and also ranges farther afield to depictions of otherness such as the witches in Macbeth, noting how Shakespeare routinely relies upon racialized imagery and dehumanizing language: white/fair equals good; dark equals bad and ugly.

Like his contemporaries, Shakespeare employs racist and antisemitic tropes in his characters, yet also writes them as multifaceted individuals. “Shakespeare often challenges us to hold two contradictory views simultaneously,” Karim-Cooper states. Indeed, Othello is brave and forthright as well as lethally jealous; we hear Caliban’s side of the story as well as Prospero’s. The evidence of Black people and interracial marriage in Tudor England introduces the possibility of Shakespeare having actually encountered people of color. And Karim-Cooper’s analysis of The Merchant of Venice might make one wonder whether Shakespeare knew any Jews passing as Christians for safety.

Our perception of Shakespeare’s work is ever-evolving: It wasn’t until the 18th century that he was even glamorized as “the Bard” by theater star David Garrick. Karim-Cooper’s candid discussion of more nuanced and informed approaches to interpreting Shakespeare can only help his work endure.

Karim-Cooper's candid discussion of more informed and nuanced approaches to interpreting Shakespeare can only help the Bard’s work endure.
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In 1972, digging commences on a new development in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and unearths the desiccated skeletal remains of an unidentified man. This shocking discovery kicks off National Book Award winner James McBride’s riveting sixth novel, but while the man’s identity and how he ended up dead in a farmer’s well are essential mysteries, they aren’t the heart of this gorgeous historical tale. That belongs to the lifesaving relationships between the novel’s diverse groups of people.

Following his acclaimed, blockbuster crime novel, Deacon King Kong, McBride takes a softer turn while expanding beautifully on the themes of race, religion and belonging from his groundbreaking memoir, The Color of Water. Alongside the decadeslong mystery of the man’s remains, there are all kinds of love in The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, from love for a child to the platonic love of friends, co-workers and neighbors. There’s also a beautifully rendered romantic love story between two of the leads. 

In 1930s Pottstown, the multiracial and pluralistic working-class neighborhood of Chicken Hill is witness to care and cooperation as well as conflict among its disparate inhabitants, leading to both redemption and the kind of danger that leaves an anonymous corpse more than six feet under. Chicken Hill is “a tiny area of ramshackle houses and dirt roads where the town’s blacks, Jews, and immigrant whites who couldn’t afford any better lived.” Moshe Ludlow, a Jewish immigrant from Romania who “could talk the horns off the devil’s head,” manages a theater. When he meets Chona Flohr, the brilliant daughter of the local rabbi (who also owns the titular grocery store), he knows that she is the gift that will transform his life for the better. 

While Moshe is struck by Chona’s beauty, it’s her fierce intelligence, fearlessness and “eyes that [shine] with gaiety and mirth” that capture his heart. Despite restrictions on women’s religious participation, Chona is a self-taught biblical scholar. Her body bears the lasting effects of polio; with one leg shorter than the other, she limps and wears a boot with a sole four inches thick. After they marry, with Chona’s help, Moshe becomes a wildly successful theater owner who defies tradition to host Jewish and Black performers together on the stage, attracting crowds from miles around: “The reform snobs from Philadelphia were there in button-down shirts, standing next to ironworkers from Pittsburgh, who crowded against socialist railroad men from Reading wearing caps bearing the Pennsylvania Railroad logo, who stood shoulder to shoulder with coal miners with darkened faces from Uniontown and Spring City.” 

Chona also continues to run the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, and when so many other Jewish families are finding a way out of Chicken Hill, Chona and Moshe dig in. This inclusive, expansive and defiant love leads Moshe and Chona to embrace an orphaned Black boy, their friends’ ward, who’s targeted by a predatory local Klan leader who’s also the leading doctor in the neighborhood. These actions set off a series of unfortunate and heartbreaking events. 

McBride is a lyricist and musician, and there’s a rhythmic quality to this unique novel, which began as an ode to a beloved figure in McBride’s life: Sy Friend, the director of a camp for disabled children where the author worked for four years in his youth. These origins are visible in the novel’s nuanced portrayals of disability and race, and in the heroic figure of Chona and the myriad other fantastically imperfect humans who populate the polyglot neighborhood of immigrants, Jews and Black people in this heart-rending and hopeful tale of cross-cultural solidarity, love and redemption.

James McBride is a lyricist and musician, and there's a rhythmic quality to his unique sixth novel, which began as an ode to a beloved figure in the author’s life.

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