Spring Arts Guide Picks: Books

King of Cuba

By Cristina García, May 21

Set partially in modern Havana, García's sixth novel offers a profane, rollicking sendup of a dictator on his deathbed—a buffoon transparently redolent of Comandante You Know Who. Our first introduction: "The tyrant shifted onto his left hip, aiming his scrawny buttocks at the Straits of Florida, and released a sputtering, malodorous stream of flatus. 'Take that, you fat-livered idiots,' he muttered, slumping against his padded headboard." If the National Book Award finalist and author of Dreaming in Cuban focused only on a farting faux-Fidel, King of Cuba might prove cheap comedy, not to mention dull and politically lopsided. So for equal-opportunity misanthropy, García oscillates between Cuba and Florida, where she also scathingly lampoons the dictator's foil, the fictional Goyo Herrera, an upper-middle-class Miami exile and long-ago acquaintance of the dictator. Goyo has long nursed a resentment for the dictator's "mistreatment of the woman he'd loved above all others: Adelina Ponti, a pianist whose interpretations of Schubert's early piano sonatas had won his heart." Though he too has reached the late stages of his life, Goyo's obsession with murdering the dictator turns him not just apoplectic but a little autocratic as well. García spares neither man as each fights for a vision of Cuba that suits his own passions while remaining oblivious to the ways in which the world has already moved on. Scribner, 256 pp., $25

The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind the WikiLeaks Whistleblower

By Chase Madar, March 26

Is anyone caught more acutely in the crosshairs of modernity than Bradley Manning? After spending his developmental years ostracized and troubled, having gay relationships but feeling he was possibly transgendered, the now-demoted soldier pled guilty in late February to unleashing one of the largest geysers of state secrets in U.S. history—more than 700,000 documents, including the "Collateral Murder" WikiLeaks video that some believe helped incite the Arab Spring. Bullied, tortured, pilloried by some, celebrated by others, and twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Manning has become a flashpoint for a zillion hot-button issues. Madar's biography waxes laudatory, but the story has no ending as yet: Manning's trial begins in June.

Verso, 188 pp., $14.95

The Movement of Stars

By Amy Brill, April 18

Loosely basing her novel on the life of America's first female professional astronomer, Maria Mitchell, Brill takes that potentially alfalfa-dry source material (19th-century New England scientist and possibly lesbian spinster seeks comet) and spins a luxurious romance about stargazing and star-crossing. Hannah Gardner Price, the heroine, driven to succeed in her field and steadfast in her right to do so, eventually becomes embroiled in an interracial romance with Isaac, an Azorean whaler she takes on as a student. Though the setting and subject may brand this a historical novel, the conflicts ring sharply contemporary—career vs. family, racial tension vs. love. I hope to see steampunks on the L train wetting its pages with their artisanal tears. Riverhead, 386 pp., $27.95

A Short History of Nuclear Folly

By Rudolph Herzog, May 1

"People are beginning to forget the popular fears of nuclear war and total destruction from a bygone epoch," says Herzog, documentarian and son of Werner. "But the new sense of security among many in the West is misleading." Herzog's book unflinchingly chronicles the bumbling attempts of the U.S. and Soviet Union to recruit German nuclear scientists after World War II, the contamination and cover-up of Russian nuclear sites, the ruination of Bikini Island, and our research into something called "nuclear earthmoving," which could've blasted us a new Panama Canal—302 bombs later. Let's just say that Herzog's use of the word "folly" is an understatement. Melville House, 256 pp., $26

Fools

By Joan Silber, May 13

Like some of National Book Award finalist Joan Silber's previous story collections, Fools compresses the life stories of characters very different from their author into elegant shapes that make human existence seem practically comprehensible. For this timely collection, Silber channels anarchists, Occupy activists, Catholic Workers, and Floridian romantics, following them to every corner of the globe. Is it stupid, these tales ask us, to believe so strongly in an idea or a person that you take gigantic leaps of faith in order to follow your passions? The answer, if Silber's work is any indication, is probably "yes and no." W.W. Norton, 256 pp., $25.95

The Greenest Home: Superinsulated and Passive House Design

By Julie Torres Moskovitz, May 15

This spectacular coffee-table book allows conscientious real estate droolers to ogle glamorous modern private homes, primarily of post-Koolhaas European design, without feeling guilty. Yes, these energy-efficient miniature MOMAs in the woods of Orient, New York; Kama-kura, Japan; Ghost Lake, Canada; Bessancourt, France; and other far-flung locations do showcase some horrifyingly chic kitchen appliances and countertops. But the architects who've designed them have hewn to strict standards that qualify these as "Passive Houses," able to reduce average energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 90 percent, using heat from the sun, body heat, and electrical equipment in the home. They won't kill the planet, but they are, nevertheless, to die for. Princeton Architectural Press, 192 pp., $45

 
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