Lapvonaby Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press). In this novel of medieval grotesquerie, Lapvona is a realm where cruelty reigns. Marek, a disfigured boy, and his father, Jude, a shepherd, live a life of squalor until an accident results in Marek’s being adopted by Lapvona’s slovenly lord, Villiam. While Marek grows fat on the castle’s delicacies, Jude and the other villagers go hungry during a drought. Alternating between scenes of idle decadence and of desperate struggle for survival, the novel abounds with violence, cannibalism, and magic, while human compassion flickers only occasionally. Moshfegh’s brutal vision can make for grim reading, but it has a coherence that is rare in contemporary fiction.
horseby Geraldine Brooks (Viking). One of America’s first champion thoroughbreds, Lexington (1850-75), stands at the center of this deft novel, which moves between the present day and the Civil War era in a polyphonic examination of the fraught racial aspects of horse racing in US history. Theo, a Nigerian American art historian, finds a portrait of a horse in his neighbor’s trash, and meets Jess, an Australian scientist who is involved in analyzing the recently discovered skeleton of a powerful stallion. Back in Lexington’s lifetime, we meet his young groom, Jarrett, living in slavery and torn between his desire for freedom and his devotion to the animal. These narratives and others gradually fit together to create a picture of the artistic, athletic, and scientific passions that horses can inspire in humans.
The Pope at Warby David I. Kertzer (Random House). Afraid of jeopardizing the Vatican’s precarious neutrality during the Second World War, Pius XII was so reluctant to upset Mussolini and Hitler that he refused to publicly condemn the slaughter of Europe’s Jews. Yet he has retained many defenders, and his legacy has been much debated, in part because his papers were sealed until 2020. Drawing on these newly available documents, this history offers both a masterly character study of a flawed, tormented leader and a cautionary tale about the perils of both-sides-ism. Although the Pope managed to protect the papacy during a tumultuous period, Kertzer definitively concludes that “as a moral leader, Pius XII must be judged a failure.”
Geography Is Destinyby Ian Morris (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Ten thousand years of British history are condensed in a book that seeks to explain what led to Brexit. A pattern emerges in which Continental innovations (in agriculture, technology, religion, and governance) have invariably pushed northwestward, with the Isles repeatedly facing encroachment and population replacement. The pattern was disrupted in the imperial age, but this, Morris contends, was a blip, whereas the anxieties that produced Brexit—immigration, identity, ownership—represent the norm. Looking into the future, Morris predicts that, as the globe continues to shrink, “Beijing, not Brussels,” will become the focus of Britain’s encroachment angst.