Had things gone according to plan, Harper Lee would have followed To Kill a Mockingbird with a true-crime book called The Reverend, an account of Willie Maxwell, an African American preacher from Alabama accused of killing five members of his family, one by one, in the 1970s. Determined to stick to the facts--unlike her friend Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood Lee had helped with--Lee spent a year in Maxwell’s hometown reporting the story, but never managed to get the book written. Working from Lee’s notes, letters, and the historical record, Casey Cep, in her powerful debut, has. Furious Hours (Knopf, $26.95) in fact is three books in one. Along with the account of how and why Maxwell committed the murders—including the possible role played by voodoo—Cep examines the relationship between Maxwell and his lawyer, a white liberal who defended Maxwell through several trials, and then, after Maxwell was shot at his stepdaughter’s funeral, defended his killer. Clearly, Lee was on to a great story, and Cep adds to it with a rare inside look at one of our most reclusive writers, delving into Lee’s complicated and often contradictory attitudes to race and the South and correcting the many misunderstandings that have crept into the Lee legend.
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” Herman Melville’s great novel, Moby-Dick, is an incredible exploration of revenge and the conflict of man versus nature, but it is also a reverent and insightful novel of the sea. Indeed, the ocean is as much a character as Ishmael or Ahab, and Richard J. King’s book, Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick (Chicago, $30), shows us just how deep Melville’s research went. King delves into the natural history behind the work, teaching us about whale intelligence, marine animals, and period research methods while also taking a broader cultural view of how the sea was seen by the American public when Melville was writing. Whether you love Moby-Dick or just like getting your feet wet, King’s book captures the enduring power that the ocean still has over us, and what that means in an era of climate crisis.
A writer, translator, critic, and editor, Alberto Manguel is an unabashed bibliophile who writes with the erudition of a lifetime of deep, wide reading, as well as an irrepressible sense of wonder. Fabulous Monsters (Yale, $19.95), an eclectic collection of thirty-seven profiles of imaginary figures— from Satan and Sinbad to Faust, Superman, and Heidi’s grandfather—celebrates fiction’s unique power to create characters that “cannot be caged between the covers of their books.” Drawing its title from the scene in Through the Looking-Glass where Alice meets the Unicorn and each admits the reality of the other, Manguel’s book reminds us that “the monster is…the thing unexpected”—the thing that surprises and startles and enchants us. And Alice isn’t just a dreaming child—armed with words, she “confronts unreason with simple logic,” an approach tantamount to civil disobedience. Similarly, Jonah, when ordered by God to speak against the people of Nineveh, refused because he was an artist; contrasting the ambition that fuels creation with the acquisitiveness that accumulates for its own sake, Manguel pulls Jonah into the 21st century, as he also does Twain’s Jim, Defoe’s Crusoe, and Rousseau’s Émile, tracing genealogies of racism, exploitation, and a society “that wants to produce consumers, not citizens,” while showing us how to “reimagine reality in order to better see and understand it.”