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This Week’s Hot Reads: April 14, 2014

A 15th century slave’s monologue, a sheepherder’s confrontation with mysterious violence, and a clear-eyed look at the Mormon Church’s fraught origins.

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree By Wilma StockenströmEvery few years, a book comes along that I read only a few pages at a time, lingering over exceptionally well-crafted prose. In 2012, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, a searing monologue delivered by Jesus’s mother as you’ve never before encountered her, was one such novel. Now another monologue, also spoken by a woman who has experienced more than most can fathom, has left me entranced and devastated.

Memory and Loss

This Week’s Hot Reads

A form-defying poetic novel from one of Israel’s best writers, a history of the Ten Commandments, and the translated account of a French soldier’s four miserable years in the trenches of WWI.

The Ten Commandments By Michael Coogan Quick, a challenge: name the Ten Commandments. For something so frequently referenced in the public discourse, it’s surprising how the words themselves can be taken for granted, or forgotten altogether. (Stephen Colbert once issued the same challenge to a congressman who sponsored a bill requiring the display of the commandments in courthouses. He could only come up with three.) But perhaps, if you’re particularly savvy, you’d reverse the game on me: am I referring to the commandments as they appear in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5, or Exodus 34? Michael Coogan, director of publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum, opens The Ten Commandments: A short history of an Ancient Text, by listing the three different Decalogues in full, to demonstrate their differences; the third list includes such entries as “You should not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Secrets

This Week’s Hot Reads

The Daily Beast

From a portrait of an upscale New York City kitchen and its motley crew to a spy thriller set during the Chinese Communist Revolution.

Sous Chef by Michael GibneyA graduate of the Culinary Institute of America once told me that Gordon Ramsay is the only chef on television who acts like someone she’d find in an actual restaurant kitchen. Food Network and other channels have made the cooking industry seem family-friendly and, in doing so, are apparently committing a gross disservice to reality. It seems Ramsay’s coarse demeanor and fiery personality, complete with cursing and bawdy humor, reveal more about the field than can any bubbly acronym with which Rachel Ray abuses us.

Hot Reads

This Week’s Hot Reads

The Daily Beast

This week, from friendship with a phony (and murderous) Rockefeller to fortune-seeking husband-hunters in the British Raj.

Blood Will Outby Walter KirnFrom his earliest school days, Walter Kirn is driven to succeed—to impress his instructors, out-accomplish his peers, earn top grades, and win contests. But midway through his undergraduate education at Princeton, questions of “what else?” catch up with him. What if it’s not enough to be smart and work hard? In Lost in the Meritocracy, Kirn charts how the economics of privilege taunt him at every turn in Princeton.

This Week’s Hot Reads

A new novel from one of America’s best young writers, a history of the hunt for a cure for AIDS, and the story of a sensational murder trial in turn-of-the-century Paris.

All Our Names: A Novel By Dinaw MengestuTowards the beginning of All Our Names, by MacArthur fellow and New Yorker 20 Under 40 Award winner Dinaw Mengestu, one character, a student in an unnamed African university, asks a fellow student named Isaac what he is studying. “This is Africa. There’s only one thing to study,” he replies. “Politics. That’s all we have here.” In his third novel, Mengestu displays his talent for the distinctly political fiction of post-colonialism, but also the deftly tragic touch of a dramatist.

Mission Impossible

This Week’s Hot Reads

Three nonfiction books: a look at missionary work in the Caribbean and Holland, an account of being a stringer in the Congo, and German espionage in the U.S. during World War I.

More Than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments By Megan HustadIn 1978, Megan Hustad’s father quit his job to become a missionary. On assignment with Trans World Radio—an evangelical broadcasting company with the motto “Speaking Hope to the World”—StanHustad decamped, his family in tow, from Minnesota to a small island in the Netherland Antilles called Bonaire. Missionary work would send the Hustad’s from Bonaire to Holland; after nine years abroad, they would return to the United States.

Histories

This Week’s Hot Reads

This week, from a preacher-turned-novelist’s meditations on death to the power struggles and engineering breakthroughs that lead to America’s first subway.

Praying Drunkby Kyle MinorRepetition—of words, phrases, and entire thoughts—is what gives prayer its force, so it’s only fitting that in Praying Drunk, preacher-turned-novelist Kyle Minor uses repetition to deepen the power of his sad, soulful stories. “The Sweet Life” focuses on one specific scene, a funeral with a tone-deaf sermon; “There is Nothing But Sadness in Nashville” identifies the boy, his mother, and his father. They’re variations on the fractured family of “The Truth and All Its Ugly” (only that story is set in 2024, a time when technology gives a grieving father new ways to try to mask his pain by re-living his son’s childhood through a bot).

Fun and Thrills

This Week’s Hot Reads

The Daily Beast

Three novels that make for clever and fun reading: from a ‘Lost’-like fantasy to a satire of the Irish boom.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer This novel features main characters we know only as the Biologist, the Psychologist, the Anthropologist, and the Surveyor, although this is not General Science 101 at your local community college. Nor is this some Theater of the Absurd knockoff. Instead, they comprise the 12th expedition to visit a place called “Area X.” The first expedition thought the place was a natural paradise, but the second expedition committed mass suicide.

Origins

This Week’s Hot Reads

From a look at the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the life of the American poet E.E. Cummings.

Karate Chop by Dorthe NorsWhen describing many works of Danish art, adjectives like unnerving and disturbing often come to mind, but these are far from criticisms. It is precisely because of how unsettling Dorthe Nors’s stories in Karate Chop are that leave her words festering in the mind long after reading their four or five pages. Aside from “The Heron” (recently published in The New Yorker and included here), Nors’s work has gone largely unnoticed in America.

Legacy

This Week’s Hot Reads

The Daily Beast

From the controversial second book by tiger mom Amy Chua, as she tackles race and cultural advantages, to a reading of George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch.’

The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America by Amy Chua and Jed RubenfeldThat Amy Chua’s new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, has, even in advance of its publication, inspired controversy, should come as no surprise. Chua’s previous book, the part-parenting memoir part-parenting manifesto The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, was an unapologetic account (and endorsement) of the strict, decidedly un-American parenting style typical in Chinese culture.

Freedom and Strife

This Week’s Hot Reads

The Daily Beast

This week, a memoir of liberation, a biography of Ariel Sharon, and a comprehensive compendium from a master poet.

Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood By Leah Vincent Whatever the ideology, few display the zeal of the convert. For writer and activist Leah Vincent, born the daughter of a Rabbi in an ultra-orthodox community in Pittsburgh, the ideology in which she found herself an eager neophyte was one that most of us in this country take for granted: secular self-determination. In Cut Me Loose, she describes her creeping disillusionment with the paternalistic and self-segregating world of the Yeshivish, in which a girl was expected to “move from her father’s home to her husband’s” at a young age, and where she was exposed to such sentiment as “blacks aren’t like other non-Jews.

Death and Madness

This Week’s Hot Reads

This week: a grandson’s compelling dive into his grandfather’s life as a WWII combat psychiatrist an his most famous patient, and a journalist’s journey into a college classroom where death is the subject.

A Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, A Japanese War Crimes Suspects, And an Unsolved Mystery from World War II Eric JaffeA Curious Madness is not your typical mystery. There is no body, there is no weapon, and unlike a drop of blood, the clues are as nebulous as the thoughts and intentions of men. “The main problem with writing about my grandfather was I didn’t know anything about him,” author Eric Jaffe writes of Daniel Jaffe, who was a combat psychiatrist in World War II.

Collaborations

This Week’s Hot Reads

From a biography of Beethoven focusing on his relationships, to the best of McSweeney’s.

Beethoven: The Man Revealed By John Suchet Scholar John Suchet has written six books about the classical music’s most revered composer, Ludwig van Beethoven; his latest, out now, is Beethoven: The Man Revealed. Suchet himself admits that he has not uncovered any new information about the oft-written about composer; however, his focus on Beethoveen the man is departure enough to justify his book’s existence. The most interesting facet of The Man Revealed is Suchet’s investigation into the interlay between Beethoveen’s life and his art, the relationships that were so strained by his volatile genius inspired some of his greatest work.

The Pitfalls of Power

This Week’s Hot Reads

A Teddy Roosevelt bio centered on New York City, the tragic failure of American foreign policy in the Middle East, and a newly translated story collection from a wrongly forgotten Soviet author.

America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East by Hugh WilfordAfter Miles Copeland retired from his long career in the CIA, during which he helped organize the coup that overthrew the Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mossadegh, he developed a Risk-like board game in his new spare time. It was called The Game of Nations, and the description on the side of the box read: “Skill and nerve are the principle requirements in this amoral and cynical game.

The Unknown

This Week’s Hot Reads

From the mystery of neutrinos to the tragedy of Newtown.

Neutrino Hunters, The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe By Ray JayawardhanaIn an age of Google and NSA scandals, there seems to be no limits to our intelligence. The pleasure of Neutrino Hunters, by the astronomer Ray Jayawardhana, is that it reminds us how little we actually know, especially on the subatomic level. Since their discovery in the 1930s, neutrinos—elementary particles that carry a neutral charge—have generated increasing interest within the scientific community.

About Hot Reads

Every week, we present brief but in-depth reviews of five fiction and nonfiction books.

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