Here are five books people are talking about this week — or should be:
1. Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music and Family by Daniel Bergner (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown)
In Ryan Speedo Green, Bergner has found a charismatic and complex young man, whose extraordinary rise he chronicles eloquently — from a Virginia juvenile detention facility to the highest echelons of the opera world. Green’s resilience — which took him from an impoverished childhood to winning the nationwide competition that got him to the Metropolitan Opera — propels Sing for Your Life. Secondary characters – Green’s vexing mother, once-absent father, and the pair of teachers who intervened early and continued to be involved in his life – enrich the drama. Bergner writes so vividly about the details and hard work of opera singing – from tense competitions and auditions, to the precision of arias and sequences of notes — that readers will cheer Green and stand in ovation for the transformative power of music.
2. Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War by Chandra Manning (Knopf)
In her remarkable book, Manning constructs a cyclorama of the Emancipation process, and evokes the experience of how enslaved people escaped their owners, became fugitives and contrabands living in squalid conditions, both protected and controlled by the Union Army. She focuses on the contraband camps, and digs into archives stretching from Maine to Arkansas, Missouri and Indiana, finding original documents – letters, diaries, and narrative accounts — from former slaves, as well as Union and Confederate soldiers and bystanders. In her previous book, the similarly prodigiously researched What This Cruel War Was Over, Manning chronicled soldiers black and white, North and South, through the Civil War. With Troubled Refuge, she reframes her focus and vividly captures the tensions and challenges of ex-slaves evolving into citizens.
3. Mercury by Margot Livesey (Harper)
At the center of this engrossing, provocative novel is a Scottish-born American optometrist, inculcated with the values of “thrift, industry, integrity,” but inoculated against American optimism. The novel’s animating spirit is a stunningly beautiful thoroughbred horse named Mercury who disrupts the tranquil veneer of suburban Boston in profound ways, and exposes the fault lines and deceptions that have gradually developed in a marriage. Livesey, author of such acclaimed earlier novels as The Flight of Gemma Hardy and The House on Fortune Street, once again demonstrates her gift for writing psychologically astute novels that gallop with intensity, and Mercury should win her the readers her work so richly deserves.
4. Every Kind of Wanting by Gina Frangello (Counterpoint Press)
Frangello’s charming novel involves the quest for a baby, and specifically three families working on creating a “Community Baby.” She has subverted the old-fashioned suburban narrative, and filled it with a constellation of quirky characters – the guys who want the baby, the sister who offers the egg, and then the surrogate who will give birth to the baby – all of whom have their own marriages, relationships and pasts to navigate. Frangello threads conflicts over ethnicity, class, and sexuality into the novel, and injects a smart topicality that gives it special resonance.
5. The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier edited by Cathi Hanauer (William Morrow)
In this sequel to Hanauer’s 2002 anthology The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage, some original contributors and new recruits reflect on womanhood, feminism, and independence. No platitudes and warmed-over feminist solidarity here, but real – and often hard-won — self-knowledge from a wide range of smart women looking back on particular defining moments of their lives with wit and candor. Barnard President Debora Spar writes about cosmetic surgery and bad exercise regimes. Powerhouse editor Sarah Crichton writes about the handsome widower and the joy of sex. Writer Lizzie Skurnik writes about having a baby on her own, finding donor sperm for $700 a vial, and a process of locating a donor online that was “not unlike shopping for a dress on J.Crew.”