Reviews of the Week with Philip Gefter, Jef Aerts, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and More!

The Review of the Day has always been a brief, early way to spotlight exceptional upcoming titles on Booklist Online. These reviews are notable for different reasons—they may be starred, in high demand, or especially relevant to the current issue’s spotlight.

A sense of hope and wonder, even amid difficult times and epic trials, threads through the titles in this week’s #ReviewsOfTheDay. Booklist wishes you all well.

Monday, October 26

What Becomes a Legend Most: The Biography of Richard Avedon, by Philip Gefter

No matter how successful he became, legendary photographer Richard Avedon was always embattled. Wounded by his father’s harshness, rampant anti-Semitism, bullying, and the fear that induced him to deeply bury his attraction to men, Avedon began taking pictures at age nine, won prizes for his poetry, was saved from total high-school misery by his friendship with James Baldwin, and, after enlisting in the U.S. Merchant Marine during WWII, took thousands of ID photographs. As biographer and critic Gefter (Wagstaff, 2014) observes, that stark template later resurfaced in Avedon’s most unnerving and controversial portraits. Gefter also traces the impact of Avedon’s passion for literature, dance, and theater on his revolutionary fashion photography and its liberating vision of women, kinetic energy, and wit.

Tuesday, October 27

Bigger than a Dream, by Jef Aerts, illustrated by Marit Törnqvist, and translated by David Colmer

After hearing the voice of his sister, who died before he was born, a small white boy, now contemplating death, is whisked off by her corporeal ghost for a dreamlike bike ride. In the glowing night, they traverse narrow European streets, gray-green woods, and sprawling fields before ascending toward the moon. The boy follows Sis to the cemetery where her body rests, the looming hospital where she passed, and the park where she liked to play. As they board a rowboat, he becomes aware of an “old, dried-out sadness,” and Aerts leans into metaphor—without being too abstract—helping young readers tie the visuals of death to the subtle feelings associated: “It covered the walls of our house like wallpaper. Sometimes you found it in Mom’s soup, in the jobs Dad did around the house, or in a woolly hat for when it’s cold.” Törnqvist, working exclusively through wide-frame double-page spreads, evokes the gentlest melancholy, incorporating all the shadows and light of a sunset into atmospheric backdrops.

Wednesday, October 28

The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s (Minutes of Glory, 2019) eloquent retelling of an epic Kenyan origin story is essential reading and especially vital for our times. Told in verse, its plot, characterization, and setting are masterfully woven to create an enigmatic, yet uplifting atmosphere in which the human spirit and its interconnectedness with the natural world shine. The Perfect Nine is the legend of the Gĩkũyũ people that tells of Gĩkũyũ (man) and Mũmbi (woman), who are placed by God on Mount Kenya. Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi “had nine daughters, but they were actually ten, hence the Perfect Nine.” In his reimagining, Ngũgĩ focuses on the daughters but also depicts the male suitors from “all corners of the wind” vying to be the 10 men “left standing after others failed tests of character and resolve.” Enthralling rivalries and challenges ensue, revealing bravery and cowardice, strength and weakness, pride and humility.

Thursday, October 29

111 Trees: How One Village Celebrates the Birth of Every Girl, by Rina Singh and illustrated by Marianne Ferrer

The equation of one girl equaling 111 trees may seem like an idealistic concept, but to Sundar Paliwal, it was a commonsense solution to social and environmental problems. The notion of planting 111 trees for every baby girl born in his village came to him after a lifetime of struggle and personal tragedy, and this beautiful, poignant book tells of his path from boyhood to village head. Growing up in his Indian village, Sundar cherished time alone with his mother, even when it meant walking miles in the blistering heat to fetch water. As an adult, he taught his children to love and respect nature. And as a worker in the marble mines, he stood his ground when he witnessed the damage being done to the land. Sundar dreamt of planting trees on the ravaged land and, to honor his daughter, ordered the villagers to come around to the idea of planting trees when girls are born. 

Friday, October 30

The Blade Between, by Sam J. Miller

The latest from Miller (Destroy All Monsters, 2019) focuses on the rapidly gentrifying former whaling town of Hudson, New York. Amid a wide array of characters, a central trio emerges: Ronan, an aging gay photographer struggling with meth addiction who finds himself on a train back to his childhood home; Dom, a Black cop who was Ronan’s secret boyfriend throughout their adolescence; and Attalah, Dom’s wife and the leader of the uphill battles against Hudson’s gentrification. When Ronan and Attalah work together on a more radical, less legal campaign to fight the transformation of the city, it quickly spins out of their control, seemingly fueled by mysterious supernatural forces responsible for events like people drowning in their own homes or Ronan meeting a young trans gay man, Katch, months after Katch’s suicide.

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About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

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