Today’s releases include a bawdy, bighearted and wise novel from the author of Eat, Pray, Love; a powerful memoir of a woman determined to thrive in a man’s world; historical true crime that reads like Gangs of New York meets Devil in the White City; the story of Fab Five fashion expert Tan France, and more.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
It’s 1940 and good-time gal Vivian Morris has just been expelled from Vassar, but she doesn’t much mind. Her parents, on the other hand, are less than thrilled, so they dispatch their dawdling daughter to New York to live with her aunt Peg–the charismatic proprietor of a past-its-prime theater that is home to a quirky, cobbled-together family of thespians and showgirls (whom you will genuinely miss when the last page is turned). Here, Vivian sets out to become someone interesting, and in short order commits a colossal youthful indiscretion that makes her interesting for all the wrong reasons. Elizabeth Gilbert has said that she wants City of Girls to go down like a gin fizz. (Mission accomplished!) But she slyly imparts some hard-won wisdom into this bawdy but bighearted novel, written as an antidote to the grief Gilbert was experiencing after the loss of her partner, Rayya Elias: “Life is dangerous and fleeting. And thus there is no point in denying yourself pleasure or adventure while you are here.” To that end, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of reading City of Girls. –Erin Kodicek
Formation: A Woman’s Memoir of Stepping Out of Line by Ryan Leigh Dostie
Until I read Formation: A Woman’s Memoir of Stepping Out of Line, I hadn’t realized that I’d grown habituated to the simplistic, single-hump emotional rollercoaster of most memoirs. Ryan Leigh Dostie’s story of her life so far—raised in a matriarchal cult in Connecticut, joining the army to pursue her love of languages, her sexual assault by a fellow solider, deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the crippling aftershocks of PTSD—flings the reader around so many unsettling corkscrews as well as breathtaking highs and lows that you may stagger when you flip the final page. The core of Dostie’s story is not her tour in Iraq; nor is it the military itself, which she admits she often loved. The assault, followed by the army’s determination that her accusation is “unsubstantiated” despite evidence to the contrary, claws away at Dostie’s confidence and self-worth, propelling her along dangerous paths. But Formation is a war memoir, too. Her stories about battle and occupation will sound familiar to regular readers of the genre, as will the psychological impacts that gut the soldiers on the ground. When a male soldier tells her, “I don’t think I can ever love again,” she’s terrified of this insight even as numbness swells inside her as well. True life rarely hews to a predicable narrative structure, and Dostie refuses to perpetuate that myth, penning a memoir that inspires, terrifies, enrages, and prompts triumphant fist-pumping all at once. —Adrian Liang
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
There is an immediacy to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous that almost feels unique. The author Ocean Vuong was first published as a poet, and the poetry in this novel—present in the language, in the images and ideas—is unforgettable. The narrator is a young man in his late twenties, nicknamed Little Dog by his family, who is composing a long letter to his Vietnamese mother. Little Dog and his family grew up poor in Hartford, Connecticut, but their struggles do not end there. His mother still carries the burden of the war, as does his grandmother, and Little Dog’s struggles reach not only back to the traumas of Vietnam but forward in his efforts to fit in to a world that sees him as other. Eventually, he does find some solace in an ill-fated relationship with an older “redneck” boy, but that is only temporary. What is permanent is his desire to write, and of course his family. Vuong almost seems to be trying to super inject imagery, emotion, and language into every page, and to great effect; but no writer can reach absolute perfection. There are soaring moments in this novel, many of them. There will also be moments (although they will disagree on which ones) where readers feel that the writing fails. That’s how great art is made.—Chris Schluep
In The Last Pirate of New York, author Rich Cohen takes readers on a narrative nonfiction adventure back to the New York underworld of the mid-1800s. Drawing on archival materials and including newspaper accounts of the day, Cohen introduces us to the last man hanged as a pirate in this fair city on Friday the 13th, 1860: a handsome, charismatic thief and killer called Albert Hicks. Hicks roamed the ports and dives of the day, working for a time with a sidekick named Tom Stone, “Sundance to Hicks’s Butch,” but by 1860 Hicks was once again working alone. Hicks’s final crime was the brutal murder of three men aboard an oyster sloop; he killed them, stole their money and valuables, then attempted to sink the ship. The ghost ship was discovered with frightening evidence of the bloody crime, and the search for the killer began. Cohen recounts not only this heinous crime, but the life of a man who in a strange way embodied the soul of America at the time, “courageous yet grotesque.” Hicks gave a confession in order to supply his soon-to-be widow with funds after his death, and thousands flocked to his hanging. Cohen’s remarkable tale is a fascinating window on an early underworld legend in a city that made a star out of a killer. —Seira Wilson
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
Heads-up to your inner Gilgamesh: “The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree.” Starting with that sentence, Robert Macfarlane begins an exploration of the world beneath our feet. Where his earlier book The Old Ways explored landscape and its effects on human experience, Underland dives into catacombs, caves, nuclear waste facilities, and the land beneath Greenland’s shrinking ice cap to delve into the darker recesses of our imaginations, a place where artists, adventurers, and criminals have traveled, willingly and otherwise. Expanding his journey into the realm of “deep time”—a parallel expanse of past and future almost unimaginable to human intellect, but also irresistible to contemplate—Macfarlane takes us from the moment of creation into a post-human future, one that might be better off without us. Add its stunning jacket by Stanley Donwood (who creates Radiohead album covers in his spare hours), Underland is a one-of-a-kind book, deeply thoughtful, richly written, and infinitely rewarding. —Jon Foro
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
Ivy Gamble is a no-nonsense PI who pays her rent by tracking down cheaters of all kinds. So when a school hires her to solve a murder, she jumps at the chance to solve a big case, even if it means working at the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages where her estranged sister, Tabitha, happens to be a teacher. Ivy has a complicated relationship with her sister and with magic itself, since Tabitha was born magical, while Ivy was born without. Once Ivy gets to Osthorne’s, she’s forced to reckon with her sister, magical high-schoolers who hamper her investigation at every turn, and her budding relationship with the Physical Magic teacher, Rahul. To make matters even more complicated, Ivy decides to keep the fact that she isn’t magical under wraps. Gailey focuses their attentions on Ivy and the murder more than sorcerous mechanics, but also creates a fully realized magical world, making this a perfect read for fans of mystery and fantasy alike. —Alison Walker
Naturally Tan: A Memoir by Tan France
Naturally Tan is two delightful books in one. First, it’s a memoir recalling how a South Asian boy from a conservative immigrant family grew up in South Yorkshire, navigating multiple issues: parents who pushed him to become a doctor or lawyer though he knew his passion was for fashion, the occasionally violent racism of his working class neighborhood, and being gay (a fact he kept from his parents until he was 34). While Naturally Tan will be catnip to the fans who know him from the show that made him famous, Netflix’s Queer Eye, readers who never watched an episode will also find this memoir captivating. Being both “gay and brown” exposed Tan to bigotry early on, and the breezy way he sidesteps, ignores, or eviscerates racists, bigots, and shallow people, pointing out that their behavior says much about them and nothing about him, is inspiring. And that’s the second book: one that not only says “it gets better” but illustrates what Tan did to make it get better. Filled with witty anecdotes, useful checklists (like the art of not being a bitch at work), Tan’s dos and don’ts of first dates, a note on the representation of people of color in media, advice on how to respond to nosy questions (“my marriage is of course your business, completely”), and how to be the version of gay that you want to be, this pairing of fashion with compassion has never been a better match. –Vannessa Cronin
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