Front Table 9/22/23

September 22nd, 2023

On This Week's Front Table, question the border between fantasy and reality with a quartet of electric fiction including Zadie Smith's new historical novel, Adam Levin on a Chicago apocalypse, and short story collections from Ling Ma and Yiyun Li; also trace the long arc of American antisemitism, investigate the political intrigue behind the critical 1968 election, and contemplate the lives and careers of four prominent 20th-century philosophers, all women, as they navigate the maelstrom of the Second World War. 

The Fraud
(Penguin Press)
Zadie Smith

It is 1873. Mrs. Eliza Touchet is the Scottish housekeeper—and cousin by marriage—of a once-famous novelist, now in decline, William Ainsworth, with whom she has lived for thirty years. Andrew Bogle, meanwhile, grew up enslaved on the Hope Plantation, Jamaica. He knows every lump of sugar comes at a human cost. That the rich deceive the poor. And that people are more easily manipulated than they realize. When Bogle finds himself in London, star witness in a celebrated case of imposture, he knows his future depends on telling the right story. The “Tichborne Trial”—wherein a lower-class butcher from Australia claimed he was in fact the rightful heir of a sizable estate and title—captivates Mrs. Touchet and all of England. Is Sir Roger Tichborne really who he says he is? Or is he a fraud? Mrs. Touchet is a woman of the world. Mr. Bogle is no fool. But in a world of hypocrisy and self-deception, deciding what is real proves a complicated task. . . .

Based on real historical events, The Fraud is a dazzling novel about truth and fiction, Jamaica and Britain, fraudulence and authenticity and the mystery of “other people.”

Bliss Montage: Stories
Ling Ma

What happens when fantasy tears the screen of the everyday to wake us up? Could that waking be our end? In Bliss Montage, Ling Ma brings us eight wildly different tales of people making their way through the madness and reality of our collective delusions: love and loneliness, connection and possession, friendship, motherhood, the idea of home. A woman lives in a house with all her ex-boyfriends. A toxic friendship grows up around a drug that makes you invisible. An ancient ritual might heal you of anything—if you bury yourself alive.

These and other scenarios investigate the ways that the outlandish and the ordinary are shockingly, deceptively, heartbreakingly alike.

Mount Chicago
Adam Levin

A one-in-ten-billion natural disaster devastates Chicago. A Jewish comedian, his most devoted fan, and the city’s mayor must struggle to move forward while the world—quite literally—caves beneath their feet.  With this polyphonic tale of Chicago-style politics and political correctness, stand-up comedy and Jewish identity, celebrity, drugs, and animal psychology, Levin has constructed a monument to laughter, love, art, and resilience in an age of spectacular loss.

Wednesday's Child: Stories
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
Yiyun Li

A grieving mother makes a spreadsheet of everyone she’s lost. Elsewhere, a professor develops a troubled intimacy with her hairdresser. And every year, a restless woman receives an email from a strange man twice her age and several states away. In the stories of Wednesday’s Child, people strive for an ordinary existence until doing so becomes unsustainable, until the surface cracks and the grand mysterious forces—death, violence, estrangement—come to light. Even before such moments, everyday life is laden with meaning, studded with indelible details: a filched jar of honey, a mound of wounded ants, a photograph kept hidden for many years, until it must be seen.

Taken together, these stories, written over the span of a decade, articulate the cost, both material and emotional, of living—exile, assimilation, loss, love—with Li’s trademark unnerving beauty and wisdom.

Tears of History: The Rise of Political Antisemitism in the United States
(Columbia University Press)
Pierre Birnbaum, tr. Karen Santos Da Silva

For many Jews, for more than a century, the United States has seemed to be a safe haven. There has been antisemitic prejudice, but nothing on the scale of the discrimination, persecution, pogroms, and genocide witnessed in Europe. White American ethnic violence has assailed many targets, but Jews have rarely been among them. Observing what he took to be an American exception, the influential historian Salo Baron challenged the “lachrymose conception” of Jewish history as an unending flow of oppressions, and many have followed him in seeing American Jews as sheltered from violence. But in recent years a spate of antisemitic attacks has cast doubt on this rosy view.

The eminent French scholar Pierre Birnbaum offers a timely reconsideration of the tear-stained pages of Jewish history and the persistence of antisemitism. Thoughtful and eloquent, Tears of History is an important reflection on the roots of antisemitic violence and hatred.

The Year That Broke Politics: Collusion and Chaos in the Presidential Election of 1968
(Yale University Press)
Luke A. Nichter

The 1968 presidential race was a contentious battle between vice president Hubert Humphrey, Republican Richard Nixon, and former Alabama governor George Wallace. The United States was reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy and was bitterly divided on the Vietnam War and domestic issues, including civil rights and rising crime. Drawing on previously unexamined archives and numerous interviews, Luke A. Nichter upends the conventional understanding of the campaign.
This eye-opening account of the political calculations and maneuvering that decided this fiercely fought election reshapes our understanding of a key moment in twentieth-century American history.

The Visionaries
(Penguin Press)
Wolfram Eilenberger, tr. Shaun Whiteside

A soaring intellectual narrative starring the radical, brilliant, and provocative philosophers Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, and Ayn Rand. The period from 1933 to 1943 was one of the darkest and most chaotic in human history, as the Second World War unfolded with unthinkable cruelty. It was also a crucial decade in the dramatic, intersecting lives of some of history’s greatest philosophers. There were four women, in particular, whose parallel ideas would come to dominate the twentieth century—at once in necessary dialogue and in striking contrast with one another.

Few authors can synthesize gripping storytelling with sophisticated philosophy as Wolfram Eilenberger does. The Visionaries tells the story of four singular philosophers—indomitable women who were refugees and resistance fighters—each putting forward a vision of a truly free and open society at a time of authoritarianism and war.

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