New York Times Review
THE LIBRARY BOOK, by Susan Orlean. (Simon & Schuster, $28.) In 1986 the Los Angeles Central Library went up in flames, an episode that provides the impetus and central drama for Orlean's latest book, an unexpectedly fascinating paean to libraries - among the few institutions around "that welcome everyone and don't charge any money for that warm embrace." THE MERMAID AND MRS. HANCOCK, by Imogen Hermes Gowar. (Harper/HarperCollins, $28.99.) Gowar's lively historical novel sets a sharp-clawed sea creature adrift on the raucous social tides of 18th-century London. NO PROPERTY IN MAN: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation's Founding, by Sean Wilentz. (Harvard, $26.95.) Wilentz's revealing and passionately argued book contends that the American Constitution was less racist than many have thought, and that the nation's founding document contained a fundamental antislavery ideal built into it. THE POISON SQUAD: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, by Deborah Blum. (Penguin Press, $28.) In the early 1900s, you could find "pepper" made of sawdust or "coffee" containing ground acorns. Blum writes about the U.S.D.A. scientist who drove reform. GRAND IMPROVISATION: America Confronts the 1???1?11? British Superpower, 1945-1957, by Derek Leebaert. S |?,| (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35.) This reconstruction of TM postwar politics traces the complicated relationship between the rising United States and the declining United Kingdom, with British world experience over centuries confronting an untutored Washington. EVERY DAY IS EXTRA, by John Kerry. (Simon & Schuster, $35.) This solid memoir recounts Kerry's long career and recalls a less polarized, less debased time when statesmen adhered to a gentlemen's code of behavior and committed themselves to public service. The book is a testament to the virtues of a political life. CODEX 1962: A Trilogy, by Sjon. Translated by Victoria Cribb. (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30.) This trippy philosophical epic by the cult Icelandic writer Sjon is three novels in one: a love story, a crime mystery and a sci-fi thriller that jumps from Nazi Germany to Iceland around the time of the 2008 crash. MY BEIJING: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder, written and illustrated by Nie Jun. Translated by Edward Gauvin. (Graphic Universe, $17.99; ages 7 to 12.) This graphic collection adds a time travel element to daily life in China. Like a Miyazaki movie, but sweeter. NIGHT JOB, by Karen Hesse. Illustrated by G. Brian Karas. (Candlewick, $16.99; ages 4 to 8.) A boy recounts how he accompanies his dad to his night job cleaning a school in this moving, enchantingly illustrated picture book. The full reviews of these and other recent books are on the web: nytimes.com/books
Publishers Weekly Review
New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin) doubles as an investigative reporter and an institutional historian in this sprawling account of the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Public Library. On April 29, 1986, just before 11 a.m., a fire broke out in the stacks of the main branch and burned for seven hours, destroying 400,000 books and damaging hundreds of thousands more. Harry Peak, the man police believed started the fire, was arrested but never charged. Orlean's investigation into the fire-Was it arson? Why would Peak, a struggling actor and frequent patron of the library, want to burn it down?-leads her down the library's aisles of history, as she seeks out books on the flawed science of arson forensics along with titles from California serial killer Richard Ramirez's reading list to better understand the minds of psychopaths. Along the way, she introduces readers to California Public Library system staffers, among them Arin Kasparian, on the circulation desk; Kren Malone, director of the main branch; and Glen Creason, a senior librarian whose tenure spans "the fire [and] the AIDS crisis, which killed 11 librarians." Midway through, Orlean reveals her own motivation for her return to long-form journalism: her mother's dementia has made her acutely aware of how memories are doomed to be forgotten unless they're recorded. This is a persuasive reminder of the importance of libraries, whose shared spaces house historical treasures built with the common good in mind. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.