It’s easy to forget, what with the long weekend and the barbecues and the return of seersucker, that Memorial Day is a somber occasion. But these are somber times, and not just for military families remembering lost loved ones. So whether your holiday plans involve a rental house with beach views or a standing date with friends to watch the Celtics-Heat game, maybe offer up a moment of silence this weekend in solidarity with those who are suffering in the aftermath of violence, in Europe or right here at home.
Books can help. Our recommended titles this week include a complicated reckoning with the costs of war on all sides, “The Forever Prisoner,” by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, as well as thoughtful, unflinching looks at the long trauma inflicted by incest and suicide and plague — grim subjects, I know, but handled with heart and grace, and in my experience those are better approaches than simply averting your eyes and hoping for the best.
We also offer a novelist’s loving tribute to his mother and a poet’s raucous, joyous correspondence with friends, along with new fiction from Fernanda Melchor, Katie Tallo, Dawn Winter and Nell Zink. Happy Memorial Day, and happy reading.
Senior Editor, Books
THE LETTERS OF THOM GUNN, selected and edited by August Kleinzahler, Michael Nott and Clive Wilmer. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $45.) The English poet Thom Gunn’s poetry was metrically sophisticated and dealt sometimes with earthy topics such as LSD, the Hell’s Angels, sex and its itchy discontents, and gay culture writ large. He spent most of his adult life in San Francisco. The hundreds of letters collected here are “an appealing selection of his rowdy, funny, filthy, intensely literate” correspondence, our critic Dwight Garner writes. “Gunn was not a confessional poet. These letters have been anticipated, by many, because he rarely spilled his guts on the page. There’s been no biography. These letters are what we have, and they don’t disappoint.”
AVALON, by Nell Zink. (Knopf, $27.) In Zink’s sixth novel, a girl named Bran, short for Brandy, harbors writerly aspirations while working for her stepfamily at a nursery specializing in exotic imports. Bran wonders about her mother, who abandoned her daughter to become a Buddhist nun. She falls for a college student named Peter, an opaque romantic target. “Avalon” is “the effulgent and clever sort of novel that replicates the experience of learning a new game,” our critic Molly Young writes.
THE FAMILIA GRANDE: A Memoir, by Camille Kouchner. Translated by Adriana Hunter. (Other Press, $24.) In its native France, this explosive airing of family secrets started a national conversation about incest. Yet while the book is a stunning indictment — Kouchner lays out her case like the trained lawyer she is — it avoids being lurid or exploitative. “Free of voyeurism and elegantly written,” Claire Berlinski writes in her review, “‘The Familia Grande’ is also an artistic success.”
POISON LILIES, by Katie Tallo. (Harper/HarperCollins, paper, $16.99.) This moody and riveting mystery is a follow-up, of sorts, to 2020’s “Dark August.” Having just solved her mother’s murder, Gus Monet — plucky, resourceful and prone to making very bad decisions — washes up in Ottawa, where she investigates a decades-old murder case linked to an elderly neighbor. “Gus knows she shouldn’t get involved in this murder investigation, but she can’t help herself,” Sarah Weinman writes in her latest crime column. “In some ways she’s more attracted to danger than friendship, romance or even self-preservation. It’s an exhilarating, frenzied ride of violence and betrayal; when I finished, I just wanted to read another Gus Monet novel.”
THE FOREVER PRISONER: The Full and Searing Account of the C.I.A.’s Most Controversial Covert Program, by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. (Atlantic Monthly, $30.) Scott-Clark and Levy relate the appalling story of Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian who has been held at Guantánamo for about 20 years though he has never been charged with a crime. Robert F. Worth, reviewing it, calls the book “a comprehensive and at times excruciatingly detailed narrative about Abu Zubaydah and the people who ordered and oversaw his interrogation”: “The authors managed the extraordinary feat of communicating with him through a ‘circuitous route’ that they don’t describe, presumably because it violated the rules of his confinement,” Worth writes. “They also spoke at length with the military psychologists who tried on Abu Zubaydah the C.I.A.’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ — a revolting euphemism for beatings, sleep deprivation, near-drownings and other forms of torture.”
IT WAS VULGAR & IT WAS BEAUTIFUL: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic, by Jack Lowery. (Bold Type, $35.) Lowery’s thoughtful, cogent new history of the Gran Fury art collective, an offshoot of ACT UP that created now-iconic visual images, conjures the heartbreak, rage and incredible creativity of AIDS activism. Singling out the famous poster that announced “Silence=Death,” our reviewer Caleb Crain notes that it “had two aims: to call on fellow gays to speak out, and to put the rest of society on notice that a new movement had begun.”
SILENT INVASION: The Untold Story of the Trump Administration, Covid-19, and Preventing the Next Pandemic Before It’s Too Late, by Deborah Birx. (Harper/HarperCollins, $29.99.) Birx’s insider account of the Trump administration’s handling of Covid-19 is a scientist’s story of anger and frustration in a battle against politics and ignorance. “Although her time within the Trump White House was in most ways an agonizing debacle, Birx makes a good case that her efforts … yielded some significant mitigation of the national catastrophe.,” David Quammen writes in his review. “She was given an impossible task, and she did not fail completely. It sounds like a noble epitaph in a sorry time.”
TASHA: A Son’s Memoir, by Brian Morton. (Avid Reader, $28.) Irritable, stubborn and constantly hungry for attention, the author’s mother, Tasha, gives good copy, as they say. In his sixth book (and first memoir), Morton writes about her final years — and the challenges and joys of being responsible for a parent who defies all stereotypes of docile senior citizenhood. “If the dead are never safely dead, and the past never past, the beauty of ‘Tasha’ is in Morton’s very struggle to get Tasha right on the page, once and for all,” Dani Shapiro writes, reviewing the book. “It is a gift of mature adulthood — and perhaps the work of writing memoir — to see our parents as people who exist outside of their centrality in our lives.”
STEPPING BACK FROM THE LEDGE: A Daughter’s Search for Truth and Renewal, by Laura Trujillo. (Random House, $27.) Trujillo’s seismically moving memoir explores her mother’s decision to end her own life. For many who have been touched by suicide, her hard-earned story will be a helpful companion. “In a memoir like this, the author must be both scientist and lab rat, painstakingly dissecting her mother’s behavior and her own under duress,” Michael Greenberg writes in his review. “When Trujillo struggles to convey the most trying experiences, her inarticulateness becomes a form of eloquence. Among her realizations is that suicide is a mysterious and unknowable aspect of being human.”
PARADAIS, by Fernanda Melchor. Translated by Sophie Hughes. (New Directions, paper, $19.95.) Melchor’s luminous, unsparing novel is set in the wryly named Paradise, a gated community in Mexico where two teenage outcasts from opposite ends of the economic spectrum plot heinous acts that reflect society’s brutal misogyny. “Melchor is an incredibly gifted writer,” Justin Torres writes in his review. “Once you’re acclimated to both the style and the sheer rancor of the prose (i.e., once you give up hope for a moment of grace), you’ll notice other things: flourishes, the attention to the natural world, poetic turns of phrase, shrewd sketches of the indignities of menial labor.”
SEDATING ELAINE, by Dawn Winter. (Knopf, $27.) This knockout debut follows a young woman, Frances, who invites her obnoxiously upbeat, generationally wealthy girlfriend to move in with her so she can drug her and shake her down for drug money. “The prose, like Frances, is sprightly and dry. Crisp,” Erin Somers writes, reviewing the book alongside two other debut novels. “There are depths here; it is not all froth. … Frances is funny and winning enough, precisely drawn enough, to carry the premise even without a complicated back story. You find yourself rooting for the drugging to go off without a hitch.”