In his lifetime, Alexander von Humboldt was a superstar — a fearless adventurer, penniless aristocrat and brilliant polymath. He befriended and collaborated with many of his illustrious contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was the personal hero of Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, and his work was the basis for their great achievements. But he is largely forgotten in the English-speaking world, despite lending his name to numerous places and even species. In her latest book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, author Andrea Wulf seeks to reestablish Humboldt’s celebrity and pay homage to his genius.
In keeping with a biography of a man whose curiosity knew no limits, Wulf’s take on Humboldt’s life is multi-faceted and includes detailed, interwoven narratives of the scientific fields his work impacted. She examines how his personal relationships, politics and ethics were formed and how he used his beliefs, in turn, to enact change in the turbulent world around him. Humboldt undertook two major expeditions — one to South America and another stretching across Southern Russia into the Mongolian steppes. The product of these voyages emerged as theories he developed about the interconnectedness of the natural systems that are the foundation of our understanding of biology today. His major work Cosmos can easily be seen as the precursor to the major documentary phenomena of 2006, Planet Earth. And yet Humboldt also famously brought a sense of wonder and poetry to his work that helped to form the Romantic and Transcendental movements in the arts. Reading about Humboldt’s remarkable achievements and the fantastic experiences of his journeys instill one with a sense of wonder and curiosity about what is outside.
This book has been released alongside a spate of literature on the natural world, including the 2015 edition of The Best of American Science and Nature Writing (edited by Rebecca Skloot), and many of these new titles will be make for good pairings alongside this denser read. The Curious Nature Guide and Cabinet of Curiosities will be particularly useful to any budding naturalists inspired to get out and explore the world around you, like Humboldt did.
“Say nothing. Not a word to anyone.” So begins the painful odyssey of a frightened child in Andrew Taylor’s The Silent Boy. It is 1792 in Paris, and The Terror has begun. Turmoil grips the city. As the violence spins out of control, it overtakes anyone in its path. Terrified and covered in blood, the boy races through the streets of Paris to find an old servant who worked for his mother. She takes him to Monsieur Fournier, who believes the boy is his son. Together they escape to England to stay at desolate Charnwood Court.
Edward Savill, employed as an agent in London for a wealthy American, is informed that his estranged wife has been murdered in Paris. She has left behind Charles, a 10-year-old boy suffering from hysterical muteness. The boy cannot possibly be Savill’s, but he is still married to Charles’ mother and legally responsible for his welfare. Charles also has a half-sister, Lizzie, who is anxious to bring him home.
These conflicting interests clash to create an unrelentingly suspenseful tale. Savill, the wronged husband, is fiercely determined to provide for the boy; Fournier, the former lover, holds onto him as a talisman. Behind the scenes, political interests far more powerful than these two men pull the strings. Taylor has drawn such achingly real characters that the desire to rescue the boy is palpable. With characters reminiscent of Dickens, this tale creates a level of insecurity in the reader that mirrors Charles predicament.
Andrew Taylor is the author of several thrillers, including The Office of the Dead and The American Boy, both of which won Britain’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award, making Taylor the only author to receive the prize twice. With The Silent Boy he surely has another winner.
Vulnerable, shimmering and desirable. Oh, to be a soul in David Mitchell's disturbing and fun new novel Slade House. Here horror meets plain old weirdness in a Faustian-like brew, stirred up by creepy twin siblings, Norah and Jonah Grayer. The two house residents must refuel in order to “live” out their immortal existence. But it's their energy of choice that is the stunner for those who enter their seductive property through their garden’s small iron black door.
Spanning 36 years starting in 1979, the story’s epicenter is the enigmatic haunted mansion that only appears once every nine years. One by one, Mitchell’s five “engifted” narrators are tricked by the twins into visiting the house, allured by a theatrical setting that conjures up images they want to believe in, images that make their lacking lives better. They end up in a precarious situation, trapped and doomed, while the unthinkable happens.
Mitchell, whose previous novels Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks received critical acclaim, started this latest work out of a series of tweets. It is a narrative that hints of larger life questions for which there are no answers. And while Mitchell deftly nods to his heftier previous works and the universe therein, it is not necessary to start there. In fact, Mitchell’s latest effort is a nimble and accessible stand-alone. It may be the perfect introduction to this author’s thought-provoking, imaginatively clever writing whose style blends mind-control and the supernatural with the essence of time, beguiling it might be. Mitchell fans have come to expect nothing less while newcomers will hopefully get what all the fuss is about.
But Enough About Me: A Memoir is Burt Reynolds' no-holds-barred account of the people he has known throughout his life, including childhood friends, mentors and, of course, Hollywood celebrities. Sharing both his viewpoint and notable stories, you learn as much about those he has come in contact with as the man himself.
Told mostly in chronological order, Reynolds begins with his childhood in Rivera Beach, Florida, just south of Palm Beach. He then moves on to his time as a football player for the Florida Seminoles, with the remainder of the book focused on his career as a Hollywood stuntman and actor. Stories about the movie Deliverance, Gore Vidal and Johnny Carson are mesmerizing. You will savor his thoughts on Bette Davis, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood. And you will feel his strong sense of regret as he discusses his relationships with Dinah Shore and Sally Field. Sparing no details, he also shares the embarrassing aftermath of posing nude for Cosmopolitan magazine, and the hesitation he had about working in the movie Boogie Nights, the role for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod.
If you are a fan of Reynolds or just like Hollywood stories, you'll enjoy this memoir. You'll smile, laugh and at times shake your head in disbelief! Reynolds delivers an entertaining yet honest portrait of himself and those he has known over the years. Humorous and even embarrassing, this book is definitely worth the read!
Readers who like this book may also want to check out Make ‘Em Laugh: Short-Term Memories of Longtime Friends by Debbie Reynolds or Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me: A Memoir by Stevie Phillips.
Following the devastation wrought by World War I, grieving Europeans and Americans sought the answer to the question: What happens to us after death? Many turned to Spiritualism, the belief that the dead can communicate with the living, and popularized consulting mediums and psychics to contact their dead. But how would you know if the dead were really speaking through the medium, or if you were in the presence of a talented (or sometimes not-so-talented) fraud?
One answer: apply science and logic to test a medium’s abilities. David Jaher’s debut book The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction and Houdini in the Spirit World describes just such a test held in the mid-1920s and the furor that surrounded its most likely candidate. Sponsored by the magazine Scientific American, a large cash prize was offered to the medium who could provide proof of his or her abilities, proof that had to withstand scientific scrutiny by an investigative panel of judges.
What set out to be an objective experiment in psychic research became anything but, dominated by the personalities involved. Jaher’s cast ranges from the champion of Spiritualism and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to one of the judges, the escape artist who actively sought to expose fake psychics, Harry Houdini. Most important of all was the so-called Witch of Lime Street, a Boston woman known as Margery or Mina Crandon, who supposedly could call on her deceased brother to perform various ectoplasmic phenomena.
Jaher provides a deeper understanding for a little-known craze of the Jazz Age. His level of detail is meticulous and illuminating, capturing the complex relationships and beliefs of everyone involved, living or apparition. His objective recounting of the contest and the fallout that followed allows readers to make their own judgment of the people involved. Readers who enjoy learning about the more obscure events in history will definitely enjoy this book. But this book could also be enjoyed by those who have wondered if there is life after death, or who appreciate the complexity of human relationships.
Bestselling author Sarah MacLean brings TMZ to pre-Victorian times in The Rogue Not Taken, the first in her new Scandal & Scoundrel series. Lady Sophie Talbot preferred life as a commoner, but when her father’s success secured him an earldom she was thrust into the highest echelons of London society. Sophie shies from the spotlight until her philandering brother-in-law causes her to create a very public scene and earn the scorn of the aristocracy. Think along the lines of the Beyonce/Jay Z/Solange elevator incident and you’ve got the picture.
Vowing to leave London, she stows away in the carriage of Kingscote, the Marquess of Eversley. King is a charmer with an ill-deserved (but welcome) reputation as a rake. When Sophie is discovered, King is sure that she is trying to trick him into marriage despite her avowal that he is the last man she would ever marry. Sophie asks King to take her to her childhood home claiming a lost love is waiting for her. While he is disbelieving, he agrees to give her a ride.
This will turn out to be the journey of a lifetime for these two who are at odds from the beginning and continue to snipe along the way. Yet when trouble strikes, they have each other’s backs and slowly the bickering turns to flirtatious banter and the sparks begin to fly. This compelling story is enhanced by MacLean’s fast-paced storytelling, clever dialogue and sharp wit. Sophie and King are clearly drawn, engaging characters whose emotional connection is palpable. This intense romantic journey is peppered with comedy and action while also serving as a cutting commentary on pre-Victorian upper class society.
In the debut novel The Red Storm by Grant Bywaters, life isn’t easy for William Fletcher, former-boxer-turned-private-detective living in segregated 1930s New Orleans; not many white people are willing to respect, let alone hire, an African American private eye. When his former employer and mob associate, the violent Bill Storm, reappears in Fletcher’s life with a final request – to locate Storm’s daughter – Fletcher figures things couldn’t get worse.
But then, Storm is found shot in the head, and his killer seems to be gunning for his daughter. She hires Fletcher as protection, setting off a chain reaction of escalating violence between the police and different mob factions. Fletcher has to use all of his boxing experience and investigative instincts to survive the coming storm.
The Red Storm is a treat for any hardboiled detective or historical fiction fan and especially so for fans of boxing as the book is rife with references. Bywaters is frank in his depictions of violence, be it a boxing match or a fight between mobsters. He also never lets the reader forget the time period he’s writing in either; not only does he reference specific events and places in New Orleans history but he also doesn’t shy from the slang or the racial issues. Counterpoint to the rampant casual racism and segregation is Fletcher himself, who won’t let anything impede his investigations.
It’s easy to understand why Bywaters won the Best First Private Eye Novel Competition sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) and Minotaur Books, with his professional experience as a licensed private investigator adding authenticity to Fletcher’s fictional investigations. Reminiscent of Walter Mosley and James M. Cain, mystery fans will appreciate this new voice in hardboiled detective fiction.
Is David Spade’s memoir Almost Interesting? No way, I say! It's actually extremely interesting. Filled with hilarious childhood stories, Saturday Night Live anecdotes and embarrassing tales of life in Hollywood, it's both entertaining and quick to read. He serves up his life story, warts and all!
Told chronologically, he takes us on wild ride through his childhood in Arizona, to his days as a struggling L.A. comic, followed by his tenure at SNL and ends with his life as a Hollywood celebrity. Uncontrollable laughter will overtake you as you read his account of pledging a fraternity, losing his newly purchased car in Hollywood and being catfished by a model’s parody account. Seriously, that happened, and quite recently, too! Even the story of his crazed assistant Skippy attacking him is hilarious. You'll also enjoy his tales of working on SNL. He candidly offers up both his favorite and least favorite hosts and musical guests. Trust me, he goes there! My favorite is his account of the infamous Sinead O’Connor performance. Finally, you will feel his overwhelming sense of loss when he discusses his best friend, Chris Farley.
If you’re a fan or just like to read about celebrities, I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Almost Interesting. I’m not kidding. Do it! You can read it in quick bursts or in one long sitting, but since Spade is a comedian be prepared to laugh out loud, and even more so if you listen to the audiobook, since he narrates it. Be forewarned though, at times he is raunchy, but nothing wildly inappropriate. To see Spade in action on SNL, check out the DVD Saturday Night Live: The Best of David Spade. Knowing the backstories makes it much funnier.
In Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg, the title character is a flawed human being who reaches out to the poor around her yet never gives up on life’s pleasures. Mazie Phillips-Gordon is a self-proclaimed good time girl. Her favorite things in life are cigarettes, alcohol and having fun. Despite her hedonistic ways, Mazie is also a pushover for the vagrants who populate her Lower East Side world during the Great Depression.
Attenberg sets up the story as a documentary on Mazie told in part through her diary and also through the interviews and observations of people who knew her. By using different points of view, Attenberg allows us to see the good in Mazie that she often fails to see. She and her younger sister Jeanie are rescued by their sister Rosie who takes them away from their abusive father and ineffectual mother. However, both girls go through rebellious periods making life difficult for Rosie. In an effort to try and curb Mazie’s life spent in bars and speakeasies, Rosie’s husband has Mazie work in the ticket booth at his movie theater. Feeling confined in the box office – which she refers to as her ‘cage’— Mazie manages to keep her spirits up by helping the homeless people in her neighborhood. Attenberg may refer to Mazie as a saint in the title, but this book recounts the unvarnished world of a woman who lived life to the fullest.