Cover to Cover

A guide to additional releases: Nureyev's life; South Africa's fractious past; Red Lobster as muse
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FICTION

Last Night at the Lobster
by Stewart O’Nan (Viking)

The conscientious manager of the soon-to-be-defunct Red Lobster in a tired New England mall seems an unlikely hero, but O’Nan’s customary empathy and scrupulous attention to psychological and external detail coax poetry from the prosaic. Using an isolating pre-Christmas blizzard to intensify the sense of the restaurant as a world unto itself, and structuring the novel around the routine tasks of opening, running, and closing the establishment, O’Nan offers a moving look at the man who would lavish care on such a place and its people. This is the melancholy but never bitter story of a decent guy trying to do the right thing, a man whose only reward is a transfer to the Olive Garden.

Porius
by John Cowper Powys (Overlook Duckworth)

In this novel, first published greatly abridged in 1951 and now painstakingly restored, the eccentric Powys produced a vision of northern Wales in the Dark Ages, specifically one week in October 499 A.D., so packed with characters, their inner lives, and their side stories that it threatens to burst its covers despite its now-ample (more than 700) pages. Part historical novel, part magic realism, part romance, the book, told mostly from the point of view of the son of a Welsh prince of mixed blood, brings together Romans, Picts, Celts, Saxons, Scots, and shadowy forest folk—along with their customs and cults—in a time of intense flux, when Christianity is beginning to edge out older religions. Tolkienesque in its setting of wooded hills and mysterious mountains and its incorporation of sorcery and martial alliances, Porius is far more historically based than Tolkien’s fantasies (if still often inaccurate) and far more realistically human, and is therefore far messier.

Mister Pip
by Lloyd Jones (Dial)

This charming short novel, which won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, was favored to win the Man Booker Prize, but lost out to Anne Enright’s The Gathering. A pity, since it’s much more original, making some important points about the universality of archetypes and even of eccentricities. Set on a Pacific island devastated by war, it describes a white teacher’s efforts to fascinate his native pupils with the temporally and geographically far-off world of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Not just a delightful read, Mister Pip shows the cut and thrust of true multiculturalism.

HISTORY

Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa
by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs)

The story of how the discovery of gemstones and gold blew apart the agrarian Afrikaner paradise of the two all-white oligarchic Boer republics has never been told with more verve, clarity, and sound judgment than here. The book’s account of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902, a mere 40 pages, is a masterpiece of compression replete with memorable detail. Meredith’s analysis of how the black majority of the region, largely ignored by the contending juggernauts of British imperialism and Afrikaner nationalism, figured in this tale is as informed as it is salutary.

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War
by David Halberstam (Hyperion)

Much of what Halberstam says in this work, completed just before his death last April, is astonishingly off. He argues, for instance, that the furious outcry that followed President Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur in 1951 “was a kind of giant antiwar rally, not just anti–Korean War, but probably anti–Cold War as well.” Yet only seven pages earlier he quotes the MacArthur letter that led to his firing, in which the general stated his determination “to meet force with maximum counterforce” and added, “If we lose the war to Communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable.” If you can say that the anger at the removal of an iconic figure of total warfare is an antiwar emotion, then why should anyone trust anything else you say?

The Warmest Room in the House: How the Kitchen Became the Heart of the Twentieth-Century American Home
by Steven Gdula (Bloomsbury)

Forget heart and hearth, argues the author of this inviting study of domiciliary evolution—home is where the stove is. Tracing the American kitchen’s century-long rise from lowly back room to glowing center of domestic life, Gdula scours the historical pantry, illuminating the development of food preparation, scullery technology, gastronomic design, and culinary celebrity. The decade-by-decade survey he serves up is a delight, rich but restrained.

Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours
by Noga Arikha (Ecco)

Thought for centuries to influence an individual’s mood, health, and character, the “four humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and choler—long ago fell out of medical favor. Or did they? The historian Arikha traces the humoral doctrine through the ages, exploring the intersection of folk wisdom and state-of-the-art science, and provocatively argues that the basic model continues to inform science in surprising ways. Arikha makes a compelling case that in the mind-body relationship, “the present is impregnated with our past.”

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