The Disappearance of Émile Zola: A
Story of Love, Literature, and the
By Michael Rosen.
Sept. 2017. 320p. illus. Pegasus, $27.95
Speaking at the 1902 funeral of Émile Zola,
Anatole France declared that the deceased
novelist had defined “a moment in the conscience of
mankind.” Rosen reminds
readers of the price Zola
paid for voicing the convictions of conscience when he
took up the cause of Alfred
Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer unjustly convicted of
espionage by anti-Semitic judges. Openly
inviting prosecution for libel with his incendiary open letter “J’accuse!” Zola expected a
fair trial that would exonerate both him and
Dreyfus. But when presiding judges ignored
relevant evidence, Zola faced prison time. In
an assiduously researched narrative, Rosen
chronicles Zola’s reluctant flight to England,
where he lived under assumed names while
enduring multiple hardships—personal,
literary, and political. Readers learn of the
author’s ordeal in exile while managing his
bigamous domestic life, exploring new utopian literary vistas, and tracking the chain of
judicial and political explosions sparked by
the Dreyfus affair. Though readers see Zola
return to France when French authorities finally freed Dreyfus from prison, they share
his acute frustrations at these officials’ refusal
to fully redress the injustice visited upon an
innocent man, frustrations that persisted until the writer himself died under suspicious
circumstances. A profoundly humanizing
account of a previously opaque literary-po-litical episode. —Bryce Christensen
The Girl in the Show: Three Generations
of Comedy, Culture, & Feminism.
By Anna Fields.
Aug. 2017. 392p. Arcade, $26.99 (9781510718364). 823.
Fields examines women in comedy through
the lens of American feminist history in this
insightful work, which mixes thoughtful
examinations of the careers of legends like
Lucille Ball, Gilda Radner, Phyllis Diller, and
Moms Mabley with interviews and perspectives of female comedians working in the field
today, including Mo Collins, Molly Shannon,
Abbi Jacobson, and several up-and-comers.
Referring to her subjects as “
comedienne-ballerinas” (a nod to a term Diller coined that
was used on Radner’s tombstone), Fields details the way the early pioneers took on the
patriarchy, whether it was Diller contending
with her abusive first husband or Ball wielding power behind the scenes of her hit show.
Fields outlines some of the challenges come-dienne-ballerinas face today, from deciding
whether to include raunchy subject matter
in their stand-up acts to navigating the boys’
club in television writing rooms at places like
SNL, where men “often subversively under-
cut [women] rather than openly challenge.”
A piercing, smart, and essential read for stu-
dents and fans of comedy. —Kristine Huntley
By Armistead Maupin.
Oct. 2017. 304p. Harper, $27.99 (9780062391223).
Born in the American South and, at first,
submitting to that region’s traditionally
conservative political and social mind-sets,
beloved novelist Maupin, as if attracted by
sonar detection, spent years as a young man
seeking his “logical” family: the gay community in all its variety of individual and
geographical dispersal. He subsequently wrote
many novels about gay life, including, first
and foremost, his cult-favorite sequence, Tales
of the City, which brought to sympathetic
light the denizens of an apartment house in
San Francisco, overseen by landlady Anna
Madrigal, among the first transsexual major
characters in American fiction. In this endearing memoir, Maupin recalls the colorful path
he followed as he carved out a place within
his logical family, including military service in
Vietnam and a San Francisco journalist career,
during which his Tales of the City characters
and situations were created. It is easy to understand Maupin’s reputation for geniality,
given his openheartedness as a person and his
honesty as a writer; and that will make this
delightful chronicle attractive to a wide range
of readers, whether they’re familiar with his
fiction or not. —Brad Hooper
HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: As publicity
mounts, Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award–winning Maupin’s fans will be
in hot pursuit.
The One You Get: Portrait of a Family
By Jason Tougaw.
Sept. 2017. 320p. Dzanc, paper, $16.95
Tougaw’s great-grandfather is famous in his
family for once having attempted to direct
traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge while na-
ked. This leads the author to muse that there
is a problem with his family’s blood, which
affects their brains, a thought that fires his
fascination with neuroscience and physiology,
an academic interest that informs his memoir.
Indeed, the interest sometimes threatens to
subsume his personal story, distancing read-
ers from complete involvement. Nevertheless,
there is more than enough human interest
here to command attention. Consider that
Tougaw’s grandfather was a famous jockey;
his parents were hippies involved with drugs
(heroin took his father’s life); his cousin is
schizophrenic while Tougaw himself is a self-
confessed dyslexic and hypochondriac. But
his memoir is less confession than clear-eyed
examination of the people who impacted his
childhood and adolescence and how, despite
their eccentricities, he grew up to be so, well,
normal. The story he tells is extremely well
written and—despite the many detours into
clinical examinations of neuroscience—will
hold its readers’ interest to its affecting end.
The Origin of Others.
By Toni Morrison.
Sept. 2017. 133p. Harvard, $22.95 (9780674976450).
Nobel laureate Morrison, long known for
her penetrating exploration of race in the
U.S., continues that examination with essays
derived from a lecture series at Harvard. Morrison draws on personal experiences, diaries of
slave masters and the former enslaved, “
scientific” studies, and literature from Hemingway
to Conrad to Camara Laye. Morrison explores
how cultures, societies, and individuals develop the notion of the Other, the reasons for it,
the perceived benefits of distinguishing based
on what many insist are racial traits despite
the slipperiness of concepts of race. Morrison
reviews her own body of work and that of others in her journey as a writer and black woman
and her evolution from creating racially identifiable characters to efforts to remove racial
identifiers from her fiction. She notes that
“writing non-colorist literature about black
people is a task I have found both liberating and hard.” In this slim volume, Morrison
shares again her enormous talent for examining the complexity of race and racial identity,
the inhumanity that results from “othering”
a fellow human being, the justifications for
cruelty that has resulted in romanticized images of slavery and oppression, and how the
perversity of racism reverberates through centuries. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ foreword provides
context for Morrison’s analysis of the current
political climate. —Vanessa Bush
Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted
History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction.
By Grady Hendrix.
Sept. 2017. 234p. illus. Quirk, $24.99 (9781594749810).
For anyone who grew up ogling the skull-festooned paperbacks of local dime-store
racks, or daring oneself to flip over one of
those ghoulish V. C. Andrews die-cut covers, get ready to have a traumatic flashback.
Hendrix (My Best Friend’s Exorcism, 2016)
grave-digs through two decades of pulpy,
sordid, gory, incest-filled, and often totally
wackadoodle horror novels, sorting them by
theme (“Creepy Kids,” “Real Estate Nightmares,” “Weird Science”) and bowing at the
genesis texts (Rosemary’s Baby, Burnt Offerings,
Coma) before providing the author backstories and plot synopses of the resulting legions
of quickie shockers. Hendrix efficiently provides cultural context, noting, for instance,
how late-1960s environmental disasters set
the table for a slew of killer rats, crabs, scorpions, frogs, moths, slugs, maggots, ants, and
even plants (see the side section entitled, “
Salads of the Damned”). Half the page space is
deservedly given to the demented cover art
and accompanying breathless taglines (“The
shuddering touch of skin-crawling terror!”).