This month’s selections from Books & Books’ Mitch Kaplan include a paean to an influential teacher, a (time) travelogue as a mental health panacea, a satire about the contemporary book market, and a biography of one of the greatest athletes to ever hold a pigskin.
The Many Daughters of Afong Moy by Jamie Ford
Ford’s instant New York Times best-seller borrows from science-fiction and the literature on past-life memories for this time-traveling novel about mental health and filial connection. Dorothy Moy, a former poet laureate who funnels her lifelong battle with depression into her award-winning art, is alarmed when her 5-year-old daughter begins to remember traumas suffered upon her ancestors. So she seeks a radical treatment for mitigating inherited traumas, a journey that leads Dorothy down a rabbit hole of late and distant family members and timelines. She connects with such far-flung relatives as a Chinese Air Force pilot in World War II, a student at a lawless boarding school, a girl quarantined during a plague in San Francisco, the developer of a unique dating app, and even the title character, the first Chinese woman to step on American soil. Among this book’s early champions is tastemaker Jenna Bush Hager, who has already optioned the novel for a miniseries.
Elizabeth Finch: a novel by Julian Barnes
Critics’ darling Julian Barnes (Arthur & George, the Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending) is comfortable maneuvering the confines of both novels and nonfiction, and in this, his 25th novel, the distinction between these modes is as slippery as ever. His protagonist, Neil, took a class, “Culture & Civilisation,” with Elizabeth Finch, a stoic and exacting adult-education teacher, when he was 30, following the dissolution of his marriage and the collapse of his acting career. While he failed to complete her term paper, on the real-life pagan emperor Julian the Apostate, he continued to meet with Finch every few months, and this book is his ode to her outsized influence in his life, as well as acknowledgement of the fallibility of memory and biography in general. Barnes based the title character on his late friend, writer and art historian Anita Brookner; other segments of Elizabeth Finch include explore the actual Julian the Apostate. The book may include “a novel” in its title, but it insights stir up plenty of personal and historical cobwebs.
Bookish People by Susan Coll
Lauded as both an insightful look at the vagaries of the contemporary book market and a page-turning beach read, Susan Coll’s offbeat satire is a self-described “big-hearted screwball comedy” set in the industry she knows all too well. Coll worked for years in the beloved Washington, D.C., bookstore Politics and Prose, and Bookish People is set an unnamed Beltway bookshop just like it. Her protagonist (and shall we say avatar?) Sophie Bernstein has owned the store for 20 years, but she’s become disillusioned toward what has become an increasingly thankless job in a radically shifting literary environment—and in a world that seems to be splitting at its seams (the story is set in 2017, in the wake of the deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville). Her fortunes may change, however, after she decides to host the only tour appearance of a controversial poet named Raymond Chaucher, for whom scandal—and the early burbles of cancel culture—has all but torpedoed his career. A questionable patrimony, a tortoise named Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and a vacuum cleaner with an insatiable appetite help round out the supporting players and subplots in a book for people who love books.
Path Lit By Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe by David Maraniss
This biography of the multisport legend Jim Thorpe is hardly David Maraniss’ first effort to encapsulate a life in words. An associate editor at the Washington Post, Maraniss’ other book-length subjects include Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and, most importantly for his latest subject, Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente. Maraniss knows sports, and knows how politics and social stigmas can invade the space of sports, and these issues come to a head in his appreciation of Thorpe. Born into the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, Thorpe would become one of the most well-known and admired Native Americans of the 20th century on the strength of his unmatched athletic prowess. But his Olympic gold medals were stripped from him on a technicality, racism gnawed at his accomplishments, and he self-medicated with alcohol. Despite trying to revive his legacy as a movie star, his post-athletic career was defined by a broken marriage and a series of failed business ventures. Maraniss mourns these aspects of Thorpe’s life while depicting him as a survivor whose mythology still fascinates.