5 HOT BOOKS: Interracial Love, a Literary Feud, Black Pepper and Vanilla, and More

Here are five books people are talking about this week -- or should be:

1. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen CollinsForeword by Elizabeth Alexander (Ecco)

Writer, filmmaker, and activist Kathleen Collins, died of breast cancer in 1988 at age 46. To the extent she was known at all, it was as one of the first black women to produce a feature-length film (Losing Ground, a meditation on black intellectual life.) This collection of stunning short fiction, recently discovered by her daughter, should rescue Collins from obscurity. Her stories display a special talent for perception and expression. In her eloquent foreword, Alexander lauds the “treasure trove” of Collins’ work and her “singular, sophisticated black and white bohemians talking their way through complicated lives.” Collins may be an adroit satirist, but as Alexander writes, hers is an edge “without meanness of spirit.” Collins tells of nameless roommates – just “white” and “Negro” -- living in an Upper West Side apartment; community organizing in Harlem; writing poetry, going to the South as Freedom Riders, and most of all, struggling for identity. One such struggler: a woman who recalls, as an adored child, committing the unforgivable sin of cutting her hair. “’How few Negro girls are blessed with long hair?’” her father sobbed. “’How could you go and turn yourself into a Negro just like any other Negro? How could you do that?’”  Collins’s remarkable stories manage to be both indelibly time-stamped and enduring.

2. The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship by Alex Beam (Pantheon)

The dissolution of the friendship between Wilson and Nabokov makes for high drama in this strong new book on the complex symbiosis of two of the 20th’ century’s intellectual giants. Boston Globe Columnist Beam brings his past experience as Newsweek Moscow bureau chief to bear as he elucidates the tensions between Russophile Wilson and Russian Nabokov. The public explanation of their falling out focused on Wilson’s evisceration of Nabokov’s huge, four-volume translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in The New York Review of Books. Other luminaries were ensnared, and grenades were lobbed for years. While the rivalry and intellectual sniping might make Wilson and Nabokov may seem small-minded, in Beam’s telling the stakes were high and the stage undeniably grand.

3. Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman (Simon & Schuster)

In this convivial book, Lohman tells the stories of eight popular flavors: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. Lohman, founder of the charming blog Four Pounds Flour, has made a career for herself as a historical gastronomist.  In Eight Flavors, she argues that in America there are infinite national identities, but that her eclectic octet is “common to us all.”   She begins with hugely popular black pepper, brought to the colonies by merchants who avoided British slave routes and dealt directly with Sumatrans. Working chronologically, she ends Sriracha, a Thai-style chili sauce, produced in Southern California, and created by a refugee from Vietnam.  Lohman makes the stories of these flavors fascinating, and by focusing on the influence of immigrants, brings a fresh, original perspective to American culinary history.

4. The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel (Viking)

Sobel has distinguished herself with lucid books about scientists and their discoveries, beginning two decades ago with Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, about the 18th-Century clockmaker who first figured out nautical navigation. She has also recognized the considerable contributions made by female scientists, notably in her book on Galileo’s daughter. In this latest blend of science and history, Sobel focuses on the women laboring for years as “human computers” in the Harvard Observatory. These women analyzed stars on glass photographic plates in daylight, and made thousands of discoveries. Drawing on their records and diaries, Sobel vividly captures how her brilliant and ambitious protagonists charted the skies, and found personal fulfillment in triumphant discovery.

5. Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis by Mark K. Shriver (Random House)

Through Pope Francis, Shriver hoped to find inspiration, and deal with his own disillusionment with the Catholic Church.  While he was not able to meet with the Pope personally in his travels –- no interview was granted –- Shriver takes the measure of the Holy Father through those who have known him.  Shriver, whose previous book was a memoir about his famous father, A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, brings similar reflective skills to this account. Most vividly, Shriver -- who is president of Save the Children Action Network -- travels to Argentina, where he traced the Pope’s childhood, from his humble beginnings to his time as a Jesuit priest and eventually a reform-minded bishop.  Shriver’s takeaway is an uplifting one: he was rejuvenated by the Pope’s passion and humility.