The Wonder begins as a nurse, Mrs. Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, travels to a tiny village in the remote “dead centre” of Ireland in the 1860s. Lib, who describes herself as a widow, is one of the legion of female British volunteers who responded, some years earlier, to Florence Nightingale’s call to join her in Crimea, to care for wounded and dying British soldiers during the Crimean War. That harsh novitiate—compounded of the horrors of the battlefield and Nightingale’s relentlessly strict oversight—changed Lib’s life. Her training has made her, in the middle of the Victorian era, a new sort of woman: professional, in control of her emotions, knowledgeable, scientific. What happens to her in Ireland will remake her again.
About a dozen years ago, smack-dab in the middle of the Bush II administration’s misadventure in Iraq, a friend despairingly said to me, “I feel like everything I’m being told is a lie.” I shared her despair, which has, of course, returned—on steroids—during this year’s fraught, overwrought presidential campaign. I’m agitated hourly (no, make that every waking minute) by the thought that a shameless liar of Donald Trump’s magnitude might conceivably be elected to the world’s most powerful post, but, frankly, I’m also irritated by Hillary Clinton’s unbecoming lapses from the truth and her incurable (it appears) penchant for secrecy.
One of the most respected awards in fiction, the U.K.-based Man Booker Prize has been crowning a literary champion every year since 1969. This year’s “Booker dozen,” as it’s known—a list of 13 titles selected by a panel of judges—has now been winnowed down to six outstanding books. With no mainstream names on the short list, and with many eras and genres represented, it’s difficult to pick a favorite to win.
Eowyn Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, is an ambitious book. Set in the untamed Alaskan wilds at the end of the 19th century, the story follows the expedition of Colonel Allen Forrester, a decorated war hero, and his small group of men as they navigate a seemingly impassable river—while simultaneously exploring the challenges that face Forrester’s wife, Sophie, as she waits more than a year for her husband’s return. It’s a clever and fertile juxtaposition—an explorer’s struggles in the wide-open wilderness, and the struggles of his independent young wife back home, in the closed-off, socially restrictive world of 1880s Army barracks life.
Alison Gopnik’s latest book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, differs from most parenting books in two important ways. For one thing, Gopnik rejects the word parenting, which she associates with the conventional idea that children are molded or built rather than grown. The second is that a great number of individuals, from siblings to grandparents, contribute to the caring and loving of a child; this book honors that shared network of child-rearing, which stretches far beyond parents.
In one sense, Dave Eggers’s Heroes of the Frontier is a very recognizable novel—the ingenue in the new wilderness, trying to make sense of, and being buffeted about by, this brave new world. But Heroes is also a uniquely modern take on the old frontier genre: It is a fable without a moral, a pilgrim without progress, a series of adventures and nothing to be made of them. There are some real pleasures here but, for me, this book is interesting as much for what it includes as for what it leaves out.
“Most Americans know roughly as much about the U.S. military as they know about the surface of the moon,” writes Rosa Brooks in her enlightening new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon. I confess: I’m one of those militarily clueless Americans, which is why I committed to reading Brooks’s book. I thought it might fill the gaping holes in my knowledge, as I always found military history too dull and dry to swallow, even in small doses. But the book I approached as a medicinal fix turned out to be a savory treat.