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This Week’s Hot Reads

This week, from the short fiction of an overlooked American master to the family history of three generations of real-life adventurers.

The Stories of Frederick Busch by Elizabeth StroutWhen he died of a heart attack in New York in 2006, obituaries of Frederick Busch called him a “writer’s writer,”—someone who “seemed to impress critics more than the mass audience,” as The New York Times put it. It’s a shame his work didn’t reach a broader audience in his lifetime. A new collection of Busch’s stories reveals a powerful writer whose fiction is as deeply compassionate and accessible as it is well-crafted.

In Memoriam

Lunch with Peter Kaplan

Clint Spaulding/, via Sipa

Famed New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan died Friday. Adam Begley, who was books editor of the newspaper for twelve years, remembers their lunches.

Peter Kaplan, who died Friday evening at age 59, was my boss for twelve years at The New York Observer. When he quit the paper in 2009, a few of the reporters put together a tribute issue, “The Kaplan Review,” a 24-page love letter (lightly sprinkled with teasing barbs) from about a hundred writers and editors, almost all of whom worked for Peter at one time or another. The contributors to this festschrift had another thing in common: They all wanted to work for Peter because they liked him personally.

Blank Screen

Hollywood Blues

Everett Collection

Back in the dark days of the Great Depression, Hollywood pumped out brilliant, inspiring, high-spirited films. Now they give us calamity and combat, slavery and drudgery— on land, sea and even in outer space. Liesl Schillinger calls for the return of big-screen romance and wit to enliven the season.

In the midst of the holidays—a time for turkey, pumpkin pie, latkes, mulled cider, and tree-trimming, and long, post-feast afternoons with multiple generations of your family—you will find yourself riffling desperately through movie listings of newspapers, hunting for a heartwarming, mood-lifting film you can all escape to for a few hours, en masse, before the next meal. What will you see, on this and ensuing festive weekends? What has Hollywood unwrapped for us this season? Let’s see, one movie about a man who dies on a boat (probably), another about a man who almost dies on a boat.

One Nation

Why Canada and U.S. Should Merge

Diane Macdonald/Getty

How to prevent us heading for a world of scarce resources, unfair competition, and geopolitical battles? Merge U.S. and Canada!

What is your big idea?  The United States and Canada should merge. Unfortunately, the reverse is happening. They share geography, values, and a gigantic border, but the two countries are on a slow-motion collision course—with each other and with the rest of the world.Since they signed a free trade agreement in 1987, the U.S.-Canada border has become more clogged than ever, hurting trade and tourism. While both countries wrestle with their internal and border problems, emerging economies, using a state capitalism model of development, flourish.

Just Love

Who Was Jesus, Anyway?


What to make of a man that not even the Bible is entirely clear about? About whom we have so little evidence? One biographer set out to find the message that matters in his life and legend.

Who was Jesus anyway? After twenty centuries, there is not much anyone can agree on. The four canonical gospels don’t measure up to modern standards of biographical writing, and—outside of this material—there is precious little contemporary evidence, apart from a few glancing mentions of Jesus or the movement centered on him. In truth, Jesus did not, in his own time, attract much notice.This presents biographers with a problem. What can you base his reality on, unless you take it on faith?The work of recent Christian scholars comes in every size and shape, with few common assumptions.


ID’ing Bosnia’s Million Bones

Amel Emric/AP

During the Bosnian War, genocidal generals were given time to scatter and bury thousands of massacred victims in mass graves. How did forensic scientists identify the victims?

On July 11, 1995 an extermination took place in the small mountainous Yugoslavian town of Srebrenica over six days, when an estimated 8,100 Muslim men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces. It was the worst systematic slaughter to happen in Europe since the Second World War. These perverse crimes were carried out in the name of a warped dystopian vision as laid out by Slobodan Milosevic: to create an ethnically pure “greater Serbia.”Between 1992 and 1995, 100,000 died in the conflict, 2 million were displaced from their homes—half the population of the entire country—and a further 30,000 were reported missing.


A Glimpse of the Real ‘Goldfinch’

Donna Tartt built her latest novel around a 350-year-old portrait of a goldfinch. A visit to the Frick reveals this painting’s astonishingly undimmed power.

Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch is a small painting, roughly 9 x 13 inches, but it holds its own in a room filled with 15 Dutch master works by the likes of Hals, Steen, and Rembrandt. It is a potent little masterpiece. Earlier this week, I went to see it at the Frick Collection in New York City, where it is on display as part of a traveling exhibition of paintings on loan from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Netherlands.


The Week’s Best Reads

The Daily Beast

From the animal injury epidemic on Hollywood movie sets to Washington’s trouble with the new legal marijuana economy, The Daily Beast picks the best journalism from around the web this week.

Animals Were Harmed Gary Baum, The Hollywood Reporter The epidemic of animal injury on major Hollywood movie sets reveals the dark irony of the American Humane Association’s system of verifying that “no animals were harmed.”Long Way Home Rosanne Cash, Oxford American The daughter of American folk icon Johnny Cash on her life in Tennessee.Buzzkill Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker Washington State finds out how hard it is to set up a legal marijuana economy.

Bang Bang

The Shooting Party

W. G. Phillips/Getty

As we near the World War I centenary, few books offer greater insight into the world of 1913 than a novel about an upper-crust English shooting party—and its eerie parallels with today.

It is the late autumn of 2013, and publishers are rubbing their hands in glee: the first publishing spree of the First World War centenary has gone well. Next year, which marks the start of the four year horror, will probably be devoted to endless books on battles and the bloody awfulness of the war, but this year publishers have done well on setting the scene. On the one hand, there have been several books about the build-up to the war, in which 1913 is just the last stepping stone in a much longer process—Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 and Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 stand out because both reflect the immensely complex web of politics, power, and relationships that made war possible, if not inevitable.

Battlefield Earth

History of the World in 12 Maps


A new book shows that mapmaking, from today’s Google Earth and GPS navigation to Ptolemy in the second century, has always been a quarrelsome science.

Forty years ago, a German historian named Arno Peters published a world map that he described as a rebuttal to four centuries of faulty cartographic thinking.Peters believed that too much modern mapmaking was influenced by Gerard Mercator’s 1569 map, which had underestimated the size of non-European land masses. His map, Peters said, would correct the misconceptions inspired by the famed Mercator projection, forcing residents of wealthy nations to adjust their worldview.


What Salinger’s New Stories Reveal


Three short stories by J.D. Salinger leaked just before Thanksgiving against the author’s wishes. But is that such a bad thing? What they reveal about the icon.

On Thanksgiving eve, Nov. 27, three unpublished stories by the late, great, reclusive author J.D. Salinger—"The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls," "Paula," and "Birthday Boy"—leaked online after a paperback containing pirated copies of them sold on for £67.50. The stories had been known to exist before; the first had been housed for decades at Princeton University's Firestone Library, and the other two had been under lock and key at the University of Texas, Austin.


How History Broke My Family

Edwin Levick/Getty

How to tell the story of the rise and destruction of European Jews? Perhaps the most compelling way is through family history, as David Laskin does in his fascinating new book.

“The pulse of history beats in every family.”This is the essence of the writer David Laskin’s investigation of his own family tree, a family of Belorussian Kohanim—the Jewish priestly caste—caught in the chasms of the twentieth century and uprooted from their native Volozhin to the antipodes of the modern Jewish world.In the wake of the brutal Tsarist pogroms in the Pale of Settlement and the Russian Revolution that followed shortly thereafter, one of the tree’s branches immigrated to tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side while another made aliyah to Kfar Vitkin, what was then a fledgling moshav in Palestine’s Hefer Valley.

Western Canon

A Little History of Literature

Colin McPherson/Corbis

Once you have accepted it for what it is—a skin-deep crash-course rather than a rigorous in-depth study—there is much to enjoy in this new book.

Certain renowned critics have in the last two decades stepped up their output, as if unsure of their place in literary Valhalla. But if such heated productivity hasn’t blunted their analytical edge it has palpably narrowed their range and, to an extent, diluted their credibility. James Wood charged Harold Bloom with a prolificacy of near-Updike proportions: one book didn’t so much beget another, it recycled and rephrased it, lauding the same works and lionizing the same writers.

Sing It Loud

Dueling American Anthems

Getty (2)

As World War II loomed and the Great Depression left its mark, two great songwriters, Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie, composed anthems that echo today. A new book charts their birth.

In the early winter of 1940, 27-year-old Woody Guthrie made his way from Pampas, Texas, to New York City, ready to break into an arts scene that would be attuned to his left-wing politics. During the long journey, he must have heard Kate Smith’s recording of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which had been out for just over a year, over and over again; the song irritated him, like a grain of sand working a pearl inside an oyster shell. One February night, in a midtown Manhattan hotel, he began drafting a response.

Doctor’s Orders

The Real Problem with Health Care

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty

Lost in the Obamacare uproar is the fact that America still isn’t as healthy as it should be. That’s because we’re more focused on the pain than the root of the pain, argues a new book.

In researching our new book on American health and health care, we met with more than a hundred smart front-line providers. One meeting in particular, with Pat Manocchia, longtime owner and director of a hybrid medical-fitness center called La Palestra in New York City, proved particularly prescient. We spoke about the ongoing health care reform efforts and his efforts to grow an organization that was refused to abide by the many perverse incentive structures in which more care was supposed to lead to better health.

Glug Glug

What the Pilgrims Drank


No, it wasn’t champagne or beer or even whiskey, but cider—the drink of the Romans and British sailors. It’s a tipple you should still be knocking back on Thanksgiving.

 “It is indeed bad to eat apples.  It is better to make them all into cider” —Benjamin Franklin, in Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America, reporting an American Indian’s response to hearing the story of Adam and Eve.   No one knows exactly what the Pilgrims drank at the first Thanksgiving back in 1621. No known televised documentaries have survived to date, and little written documentation chronicling the meal exists.  However, all evidence points to the fact that the Pilgrims toasted survival and that first harvest in America with mugs of hard apple cider.


Richard Dawkins: How I Write

David Levenson/Getty

The influential evolutionary biologist and fierce defender of atheism on his first memories, three books he’d recommend, and having to write 3,000 words before he’d call a day productive.

What is an early and vibrant memory of yours, from growing up in Kenya?I left Kenya when I was two, so not many memories. I have a picture in my head of my father coming on leave from the army, and my recognizing him by his brown shoes. My family later moved to Nyasaland, now Malawi, and we lived there until I was seven. I remember lots from those times, but especially vivid were the yellow and black swallowtail butterflies and the taste of nasturtium leaves.

Known Knowns

How Many Years a Slave?

Universal History Archive/Getty

One of the most intriguing and provocative novels about slavery came out ten years ago. Nathaniel Rich on how it was misunderstood on publication but its real message haunts us even more today.

The reviews greeting The Known World  upon its publication in 2003 were uniformly rapturous, and, for Edward P. Jones, uniformly maddening. Critics singled out for praise the novel’s depiction of black slave owners in the antebellum South, a largely overlooked and toxic fungus in the cellar of American history. So little was known about the subject of black slave owners, and so little had been written about it, that Jones’s novel about Henry Townsend’s plantation and its slaves was taken as a feat of historiographic revelation.

Pakistan Tales

What Went Wrong


Pakistani-American Shahan Mufti set out to investigate the poisoned relationship between his two countries in his powerful new memoir about terrorism and family history.

“If we meet at a party in New York you might ask me where I’m from,” Shahan Mufti wonders at the start of The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War. He has two answers. Born in Ohio to Pakistani parents, Mufti calls himself “100 percent American and 100 percent Pakistani,” his life “a year here, four years there, five months here, two weeks there.” Sorting out origins and identity are how Mufti narrates a history of modern Pakistan and the political turmoil of a country often described by some variation of “the world’s most dangerous place.

This Week’s Hot Reads

From a legend of Mexican crime fiction and a biography of Modest Musorgsky to a giant of Spanish literature.

The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal, trans. by Katherine Silver. Rafael Bernal was a legend of Mexican crime fiction, but he never achieved international renown. Thanks to translator Katherine Silver, his 1969 masterpiece El Complot Mongol, or The Mongolian Conspiracy, is available for the first time in English. Filiberto Garcia is a hitman who knows exactly what gun to use for killing at short range, but not much beyond that. A chance assignment lands him in the middle of an international conspiracy that gives Bernal’s book its name.

How I Write