Summer Guide: Books


Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments

By Gina Perry | New Press | September 3

We all think we know the notorious Milgram experiments of 1961—but that’s because we believed what we were told. Duped by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, unsuspecting test subjects were ordered by impassive and insistent doctor-types to give what appeared to be increasingly dangerous electrical shocks to actors who feigned injury and complained of heart conditions. Milgram reported that 65 percent of his subjects obeyed the authorities past the point that would have caused serious damage, seemingly lending credence to the defense of Nazis who’d insisted they were just obeying orders. A few subjects supposedly committed suicide in connection with their actions during the experiment. Australian psychologist Gina Perry’s revelatory book intends to tell a more complicated story: There were many different “Milgram experiments,” and many test subjects in the lesser-known trials actually resisted authority. But Milgram knew how to play the publicity machine to further his career, so for more than 50 years, his version has remained dominant. Armed with a bevy of archival primary sources—both experiment transcripts and interviews with surviving subjects and others involved in the work, many of them newly available—Perry looks unflinchingly into this dark episode of psychology to find hope for human nature.

Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns

By David Margolick | Other Press | June 4

The archetype of the troubled mid-century author has few rivals to John Horne Burns, the largely forgotten author of The Gallery, a 1947 bestseller deemed by many at the time to be one of the best World War II novels. The Gallery was also one of the first novels to depict gay social life in the military, somehow managing to hide homosexuality in plain sight, perhaps because of its Italian setting. Longtime Vanity Fair contributor David Margolick, whose previous book topics have included the song “Strange Fruit” and a pair of women who appeared in an iconic photograph from the Little Rock school desegregation battle, chronicles Burns’s precipitous rise and fall: One moment he’s hailed as a new John Dos Passos, the next he’s syphilitic, drinking his face off, his later works scorned, eventually dying at age 36. Margolick’s bio offers high drama, a window into pre-Stonewall gayliterary life, and a cautionary tale about success, the war, and the closet.


By Colum McCann | Random House | June 4

Colum McCann’s hugely popular, technically proficient, sincere, National Book Award–winning Let the Great World Spin cheered up the post–9/11 world with one of those “love letters to New York City” (not unlike his fellow countryman Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland) that we needed so badly. TransAtlantic is the starry-eyed novelist’s first since then, an even more sweeping narrative that stretches over 150 years and uses the eponymous ocean as a focal point for seemingly unrelated historical events: a visit by Frederick Douglass to Ireland during the famine, Alcock and Brown’s first transatlantic flight in 1919, and U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s 1998 journey to secure peace in Northern Ireland, all held together via the multigenerational story of a fictional Irish family.

My Education

By Susan Choi | Viking | July 3

Choi (American Woman, A Person of Interest) uses prose as a magnifying glass—her hyperanalytical vision can transform any subject into a fascinating mini-dissertation. So what more appropriate setting for Choi than academia, where intelligent people come to dissect minutiae ranging from Chaucer’s couplets to rape accusations scrawled on bathroom walls? My Education, her fourth novel, follows grad student Regina Gottlieb and her dangerous obsession with hotshot English prof Nicholas Brodeur, a married father-to-be. On the first day of class, we know Regina’s fixation is hopeless: “It was the khakis that most obsessed me. . . . I had seen that the pants had a horizontal rip high up on the right thigh. It was not recent, judging from the stringy unravelments, and it was wide enough to expose about an inch of the cuff of a pair of white boxers, gone humbly gray from the wash—and beneath this, if lost in shadow, a narrow swath of very pale, hairy, vulnerable skin.”

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

By David Rakoff | Doubleday | July 16

David, my departed pal, is it merely a symptom of your wacky, wide-ranging career—actor, satirist, NPR commentator, journalist, Canadian—that your debut novel should appear posthumously, since you finished it, Mishima-style, mere months before cancer decided the gay bars in Hell didn’t have enough funny guys? And that your book should avoid the pitfall of memoirizing your unhappy situation, delivering instead a black comedy about multiple other American lives intersecting across the 20th century? Would you have been hailed as the dark, Jewish McCann? Just like you, to try something exciting and different—in verse, no less—right before exiting stage left.

The Childhood of Jesus

By J. M. Coetzee | Viking | September 3

A boy called David and a man named Simón (who refuses to call himself David’s padrino, his ersatz father) arrive in a strange Spanish-speaking country that is at turns bureaucratic, compassionate, uncaring, and, as Simón puts it, “bloodless.” The older man has made it his mission to find the boy’s mother despite having no way of identifying her—not even her name. What any of this has to do with the life of Christ remains rather murky until we meet Inez, a woman Simón decides is David’s mother, despite the fact that she’s (spoiler alert!) a virgin. A father-son buddy tale redolent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (minus the apocalypse), The Childhood of Jesus is a smart, fast-paced book by a guy with so many literary prizes (two Bookers and a Nobel, for starters) that he probably uses them as paperweights.