5 HOT BOOKS: A Dunkirk History that Enriches the Movie, Jim and Tammy Faye, and More

1. Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture by Joshua Levine (Harper Collins/Paperback) 

The Battle of Dunkirk in May and June of 1940 was a pivotal moment in World War II. Historian Levine wrote about the legendary evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force — who were trapped against the sea by German troops and endangered by bombs from above — focusing on the fighters more than the policy-makers. This new, updated version of his book, published to coincide with the blockbuster movie Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan, and starring Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and Mark Rylance, enhances the film’s brilliant but spare account by providing historical details, and maps, that help in understanding the fascinating bigger picture. 

2.  The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Megan Stielstra (Harper Perennial)

 “Channel B,” Stielstra’s essay on her postpartum despair and the solace she found in switching the frequency of her baby monitor to find her neighbor at the other end, was selected for the 2013 volume of The Best American Essays, vaulting her to national prominence. A star of the Chicago story-telling scene, Stielstra internalizes her engagement with the live audience and translates it to the page with a voice that is personal and candid, yet neither nostalgic nor self-referential.  In the four parts of this collection, each devoted to a decade of her life, Stielstra segues between quotidian concerns and harrowing ones, like what objects to grab as she and her son narrowly escape their burning apartment building. “A memory,” she recalls, “not in my head but in my bones.”

3. The Ready-Made Thief by Augustus Rose (Viking)  

If The Readymade Thief is made into a film, the tagline should be ripped from the book: "What do you do when the one true thing in your life turns out to be a lie?” That question animates Rose’s crazily brilliant debut novel, an intellectual thriller rooted in a pair of captivating young characters, a 17-year old girl and a Czech boy who is her partner in crime, adventure, and ideas.  French avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp is central to the mystery, in which secret societies, symbolism, unified field theory, urban exploration, and data retrieval are delicately woven together to form a propulsive work of great imagination.

4. The Grip of It by Jac Jemc (Farrar, Straus & Giroux Originals)

With an eerie quality evocative of Shirley Jackson, Jemc’s novel focuses on a haunted Victorian fixer-upper and a married couple forced to leave their comfortable home and move into it after the husband gets in trouble with gambling debts.  The tIghtly constructed dueling husband-wife narratives ratchet up the anxiety as the house comes to seem increasingly dangerous and their suspicions and mistrust of one another rise.  This novel feels both familiar and disorienting, and both Gothic and modern — a reflection of Jemc’s masterful talent.

5. PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire by John Wigger (Oxford University Press)

They began their marriage as itinerant evangelical preachers, but a decade later Jim and Tammy Bakker were building their PTL (either “Praise the Lord” or “People that Love”) Club featuring a satellite television network and huge theme park that made them extravagantly wealthy. Then came the collapse, and prison for financial fraud. Historian Wigger takes this well-traversed story further, vividly updating the initial expose and extending it beyond the Bakkers' business empire and their rapacious behavior.  In this fine work of history, he connects a gaudy story of personal downfall to a national boom time for evangelism, which gave us not only the Bakkers, but Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Jimmy Swaggart, who had a Jim and Tammy Faye-like fall his own.