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On Sunday: Bechdel's mom, Theroux's Africa and Mantel's Cromwell

May 19, 2012 |  9:08 am


Our book critic David L. Ulin can't say enough about Alison Bechdel’s 2006 family memoir “Fun House.” In his review of Bechdel’s latest foray into graphic novel memoir, “Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama," Ulin says that anyone who hasn’t read “Fun House” should “drop everything and get a copy right away.”  “Fun House” is on his short list along with “Maus,” “Persepolis,” “American Splendor” and "very few others of the greatest works of graphic literature.” “Fun House” dealt with the writer’s father and his untimely death: In her latest memoir, Bechdel turns her attention to her mother. But dealing with mom, Ulin writes, is a bit trickier. The reasons why make for a compelling read in this week's Sunday Arts & Books coverage.

After her wildly successful “Wolf Hall,” which was awarded the 2009 Man Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel is back with "Bring Up the Bodies," another novel about the Tudor dynasty in England and the diabolical Thomas Cromwell. “The good news,” writes our reviewer Martin Rubin, “is that it is more than the equal of its predecessor when it comes to intensity and drama.” Also, this week our YA review “Gilt” by Katherine Longshore has a distinct Henry VIII feel. Susan Carpenter says the book “reads like a more literary version of ‘Gossip Girl' overlaid onto 16th century England.”

Craig Claiborne’s name is largely forgotten in the world of food and, according to our Food Editor Russ Parsons, that’s a shame. While most people would recognize the names of his influential contemporaries James Beard and Julia Child, Clairborne, the longtime food editor and restaurant critic of the New York Times, has largely faded into obscurity. But Parsons notes “if any one person can be said to have created the modern American food world, it is he.” He reviews a new biography of Claiborne, “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat” by Thomas McNamee.

Paul Theroux is widely traveled and deeply thoughtful about the intersection of the First World and the developing world in his novels and travel books. So it isn’t surprising that he would  journey back to Africa for his latest novel “The Lower River.” The book concerns Ellis Hock, a Massachusetts-based man of a certain age. His wife has just discovered warm, intimate messages written to other women on Hock’s phone, which brings an end to their 30-year marriage. So Hock chucks it all and disappears, not telling his family where he’s going. His destination is Africa, specifically Malawi, which is where he lived and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s. That’s the set-up, but our Carolyn Kellogg writes that the book about escapist fantasies is less than it might seem.

More after the jump.

Geoffrey Ward is a historian of some note. He’s written 15 books, several of which were collaborations with the noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. But his latest effort is a gift from an ancestor named Ferdinand Ward. In his book, "A Disposition to Be Rich," we learn that Ferdinand Ward was the author’s great-grandfather and was also the 19th century equivalent of Bernard Madoff. He created a Ponzi scheme years before such illicit scams actually got a name. Our reviewer Scott Martelle, the author of the recently released “Detroit: A Biography,” writes that “the strength of the book is how cleanly Ward meshes the personal with the historical.” 

This week’s best-sellers list finds Robert Caro’s "The Passage of Power," the latest volume in his massive biography of Lyndon Johnson, coming in at No. 2 on the nonfiction list.

Sadly, one of our great men of letters, Carlos Fuentes, died in Mexico City at 83. The obituary by Reed Johnson tells a fascinating tale of one of the world’s finest storytellers. Our Nick Owchar offered a commentary on Fuentes' 1962 masterpiece “The Death of Artemio Cruz.”

Also during the week, Susan Carpenter reviewed Paul Ingrassia’s “Engines of Change” on history seen through the prism of 15 iconic cars. Scott Martelle reviewed the novel “Second Person Singular,” and I talked to foreign correspondent Barbara Demick about her new edition of "Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood.”

As always, thanks for reading.

-- Jon Thurber, book editor

Photo: Alison Bechdel. Credit: Elena Seibert / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt