The 33 new books that are capturing our imagination this season
An absorbing story of heroic librarians racing to save their country’s cultural heritage from destruction. A fascinating account of the making of the Broadway and pop culture phenomenon that is Hamilton. A portrait of the post–World War II French philosophy that hit the world like a bombshell. The return of a hard-living, kick-ass punk sleuth. An exciting collaboration between two favorite YA authors. Cookbooks galore and tennis phenom Federer. These are among the 33 titles coming this spring that have grabbed the attention of my Reviews colleagues and myself. Our selections reflect our individual tastes as well as our subject specialties, and we hope that our choices in all their eclectic diversity will offer plenty of reading pleasure for you and your patrons.—Wilda Williams
Although my picks have different themes, they can be summed up as interesting people doing fascinating things. In The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race To Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (S. & S., Apr.), Joshua Hammer tells the story of an archivist from the historic city of Timbuktu in Mali who smuggled more than 350,000 volumes across the country to prevent them being destroyed by al Qaeda militants. At once a biography of Abdel Kader Haidara, a history of Mali, a cultural profile of Timbuktu, and an investigative treasure hunt, this fast-paced telling is one that I can’t put down—and one that will appeal to those both inside and outside the realm of library science. [Riverhead will also be publishing a book about the Timbuktu smugglers in 2017. An excerpt of Hammer’s book is reproduced below.—Ed.]
My surprise pick this season is Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars (Little, Brown, Apr.), as the extent of my knowledge about space comes from watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Holt brings us the stories of the female pioneers, such as Barbara Canright, who worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, oftentimes the sole women on their teams. Holt describes Helen Yee Chow (later Ling) at Notre Dame: “The only girl in a class of men, she didn’t feel intimidated. Instead she felt invisible.” This is also a joint biography and history, and the immediacy of Holt’s writing makes readers feel as if they’re alongside the women during their first view of Jupiter, and beyond.
Normally I don’t judge a book by its cover, but I like the cover (as well as the content) of Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement (PublicAffairs, May). Arguing that feminism transitioned from a political stance to a decontextualized style statement, Zeisler covers everything from cigarette manufactories catering to women in the 1940s, the “Girl Power” marketing frenzy of the Spice Girls in the 1990s, the success of last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road, and more. Especially frustrating is how successful movies by female filmmakers (Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) are seen as lucky breaks, and how such directors are more likely to be one-hit wonders than their male counterparts.
And, finally, Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors, has written a new nonfiction anthology, The View from the Cheap Seats: A Collection of Introductions, Essays, and Assorted Writings (Morrow, May). It will feature more than 60 writings and speeches Gaiman has delivered over the years. I’m hoping it contains his 2012 commencement speech at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, even though it’s freely available online.—Stephanie Sendaula
A conversation with Sarah Bakewell
In interwar Europe, as Sarah Bakewell clarifies in her heady and lusciously approachable At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Others (Other, May), Martin Heidegger took Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological command to describe experience accurately and turned it into a bracing argument that we are actively embedded with others and in the world. Alas, Heidegger’s increasingly mythopoetic views aligned uncomfortably with his Nazi sympathies, but Jean-Paul Sartre read his monumental Being and Time while in a World War II POW camp and was inspired to write his own masterwork, Being and Nothingness.
That work was the blueprint of existentialism, a philosophy and, indeed, way of life that hit the world like a bombshell and has since become so entrenched in our culture and language that we barely notice it. In fact, it’s out of fashion among academic philosophers as overwrought. Why, then, did Bakewell decide to revisit the works of Sartre and other key existentialists, along with phenomenology as its immediate forebear?
“It had a lot to do with my memory of having been so completely fascinated with existentialism when I was younger and wondering whether I would still find the same things fascinating,” Bakewell explained in a phone interview. She had emerged from writing her National Book Critics Circle Award winner, How To Live; or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, with a strong sense that “the most exciting philosophy comes straight out of the heart and out of how we live our lives.”
How we live our lives is a concern that virtually defines existentialism, which sees us as individual, concrete human existences, freely choosing ourselves even as we scrape up against worldly borders and contexts, ever anxious, risking bad-faith falls into unconsidered behavior, yet finding real meaning in our projects. In that spirit, Bakewell occasionally interjects herself into the text, challenging Sartre’s understanding of Jean Genet’s homosexuality, for instance, and saying of Heidegger, “Rereading him today, half of me says ‘what nonsense!’ while the other half is re-enchanted.” As she concludes, “It is a personal book, so I had to put myself into it. I had to come out as an I vs. masquerading as an objective narrator.”
Throughout her acute analysis, Bakewell communicates an energetic joy at encountering these works again. But what’s in it for the rest of us? As Bakewell argues, there’s considerable value in returning to past thinking both “to understand it on its own terms and to rediscover it freshly as a new source of thinking.” Existentialism may have soaked into the mainstream, but rereading its formative texts reminds us of the value of the individual at a time when “the subjective person as a valid foundation of philosophizing is an idea that needs to be rehabilitated,” says Bakewell.
More broadly, existentialism addresses core human concerns. The perennial question of freedom has never been more important than in a world where “we are surveilled and every move studied by Google,” insists Bakewell, who’s clearly alarmed at our peaceably accepting the notion that our interests and actions can be predicted by Big Data. Existentialism was a rebellion against social expectation, particularly the control of church and state, and while jazz-dancing, bourgeois-knocking existentialists might seem passé, personal freedom—the basis, says Bakewell, for political freedom—remains high priority and headline making. She herself is especially worried about threats to free speech in our give-no-offense environment.
If technology threatens our freedom, Heidegger claimed that as a brutal confrontation with the world it also threatens our very being—that slippery sense of what we are as humans that remains the supreme question of philosophy and another reason Bakewell wants us to dig into these texts. Bakewell states that Heidegger would have been shocked that she sees her work more as literature than philosophy, though it’s certainly rigorous (she fact-checked with philosopher friends). She’s not an academic, but “the very thing that makes me an outsider also gives me a certain freedom to describe things as I see them.” Whether the result is philosophy or literature, personal discovery or road map to the texts, surely At the Existentialist Café is a masterly piece of work.—Barbara Hoffert
Love and war
One of my favorite books from my initial foray into LJ’s Best Books process, back in 2010, was Helen Simonson’s debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. It didn’t get a Best of nod (not for my lack of trying), but I was delighted when Simonson’s latest work, The Summer Before the War (Random, Mar.; LJ 2/1/16), came my way. Set in England in 1914, the story reveals the goings-on in the coastal town of Rye just as Europe is plunged into war with Germany. At the crux of the story, and the village, is Agatha Kent, whose husband, John, is a senior official in the Foreign Office and whose nephews Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham represent opposing perspectives on the war and on duty and how young men find their place in the world. Enter Beatrice Nash. Proficient in Latin, she has come to teach in the local school but encounters obstacles at every turn while perceiving a kindred spirit in Mrs. Kent. This rewarding sophomore effort from Simonson brings that turbulent period to life.
I was unfamiliar with Rachael Herron (Splinters of Light; Pack up the Moon) before I read The Ones Who Matter Most (Accent: NAL, Apr.), which hooked me from the start. Angry with her husband, Scott, after discovering that he had had a vasectomy while she was hoping to carry a baby to term, 36-year-old Abby Roberts tells him she wants a divorce. Moments later, in the family bathroom, Scott has a massive heart attack. Going through his desk just before the funeral, Abby comes across photos of a younger Scott with a dark-skinned woman and a baby—Scott’s first wife, Fern, and their son, Matty, both a total surprise to Abby. Abby and Fern are strong women, fiercely so, and they never fail to surprise and challenge each other and readers’ expectations.
As evidenced by my past Picks, I am a huge fan of historical romance. Among my favorite authors is Julia Quinn, whose outstanding “Bridgerton” series encompasses eight stories of Regency-era siblings. Quinn now presents us with a forebear in the form of Billie Bridgerton (Because of Miss Bridgerton , Avon, Apr.), living in Kent in 1779, and the neighboring Rokesbys. George Rokesby has always seen Billie as a thorn in his side as she tried to out-tomboy the boys. At three-and-twenty, she considers herself on the shelf and is glad to have missed out on the London Season folderol endured by her contemporaries. Billie assumed she’d marry one of the younger Rokesbys, Edward or Andrew. Now, suddenly, George seems to be on her mind quite a bit. Quinn and I emailed just before Christmas, and she told me that this is the first title in a quartet about the Rokesby family. She asked me to keep her plans for the other books “off the record,” and I said I would—pinky swear! But we’re definitely all in for a treat.
Lauren Belfer’s And After the Fire (Harper, May) features some of my preferred fiction tropes: World War II, rediscovered long-hidden artifacts, the history of European Jewry, and music. Yet how does one proceed when a novel begins, “He never meant to kill her”? Whew. It’s 1945, and Corp. Henry Sachs is looking to do a bit of sightseeing in Germany now that the war is over. Yet violence and fear are what our native Brooklynite experiences, leaving a scar on his psyche that will last for 65 years. Belfer (City of Light; A Fierce Radiance) composes a counterpoint of historical and fictional characters in her treatise on classical music and religious conviction and how one finds faith in the legacy of the past. Astute writing that never hits a false note.—Bette-Lee Fox
A whole lotta history
My commute has been taken over by the cast recording of Hamilton, a Broadway show that blends hip-hop, pop, and traditional musical theater standards to reconstruct the life of first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804). Yes, you read that correctly. Composer, actor, 2015 MacArthur Fellow, and melodic genius Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) has teamed up with Jeremy McCarter, creator of the Public Forum series at New York’s Public Theater, to track the fascinating journey of this phenomenon in Hamilton: The Revolution (Grand Central, Apr.). Six years in the making, Hamilton began as a collection of songs for an album Miranda was crafting, one of which he performed at the White House in 2009, before it burgeoned into a full-blown musical. A sort of mania has broken out around this play—tickets are already sold out through most of 2016, and the online lottery system to grab a coveted front-row seat was recently put on hold after eager hopefuls crashed the website. For so many, this bible of all things Hamilton will serve as the closest they’ll ever get to the action. With a plethora of photos, interviews, and revealing footnotes from Miranda about his libretto, this prized possession will be as treasured by fans as a Founding Father with the Constitution.
I’m sticking with American history this time around because Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams (Penguin Pr., Apr.; LJ 2/1/16) by Louisa Thomas (Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family—a Test of Will and Faith in World War I) has also caught my attention. We’re talking about the wife of sixth president John Quincy Adams, to be precise—someone I had never given much thought to before seeing the title on the publisher’s list of upcoming releases. Her marriage gave her the prestigious Adams name without any of its past, and Thomas paints the portrait of a woman merely trying to find her identity among this exalted family. Detailing Louisa’s British birth, her tumultuous relationship with her husband, and adventures abroad, this offering will continue to give women their deserved place in history.
As for fiction, I’ve got my eye on Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls (Ballantine; Apr.), a debut novel inspired by real-life heroines of World War II. Following three amazing women—Caroline, a New York socialite and liaison to the French consulate; Kasia, a Polish teenager with the Resistance movement; and German doctor Herta—the book traces their struggles as they fight through the physical, emotional, and moral battlegrounds of the war.—Kate DiGirolomo
A witch-haunted small town, a teenager possessed by the devil, and a religious pilgrimage with a whiff of brimstone. No, these are not Halloween releases but several upcoming titles that captured my darker fancies. Tourists are welcome in the pretty Hudson Valley town of Black Spring, NY, the setting of Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s HEX (Tor, Apr.), but they are not encouraged to stay, for the inhabitants of Black Spring live under a witch’s curse. Hanged in the 17th century, Katherine van Wyler now walks the streets and enters houses at will, startling residents with her disturbing appearance (her eyes and mouth are sewn shut). To prevent the curse from spreading, the town elders use high-tech surveillance to quarantine its citizens. But when some teenage boys decide to go viral on social media, the consequences are dire. The English-language debut of this best-selling Dutch novel by a Hugo Award–winning writer will creep you out.
Best friends since the fifth grade, Charleston, SC, high school sophomores Abby and Gretchen grow apart after an LSD-fueled evening of skinny-dipping goes terribly wrong. Gretchen turns moody and irritable, and a series of bizarre incidents convince Abby that she must hire an exorcist to save her friend. Having penned a haunted-house story set in an Ikea-like superstore (Horrorstör), Grady Hendrix once again mixes a traditional trope of horror fiction with pop culture, satirical humor, and a dollop of teenage angst in My Best Friend’s Exorcism (Quirk, May). In keeping with its 1980s theme, Hendrix’s second novel will be packaged as a Class of 1988 high school yearbook, complete with appalling student photos (big hair and all). If the title doesn’t grab you, the cover will!
Another popular horror plotline has outsiders encountering an insolated, insular community with unfortunate results. Andrew Michael Hurley’s atmospheric debut, The Loney (Houghton Harcourt, May; LJ 2/1/16), revolves around an Easter pilgrimage by a group of London parishioners to an ancient shrine located on a bleak, remote coastline where the locals are not very welcoming. Prepare to be chilled by this gothic thriller, which just won Britain’s Costa First Novel Award.
Lonely teenager Evie Boyd just wants to be accepted, but what happens when the group of girls she spots in a San Francisco park belong to a cult headed by a charismatic man? With a concept that draws on the 1969 Charles Manson murders, Emma Cline’s first novel, The Girls (Random, Jun.), which was the object of a heated bidding war, is bound to be one of the most talked-about books of the spring/summer season.
Just to prove that my reading tastes are not so morbid, I’m excited by Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday: A Romance (Knopf, Apr.). This exquisite short novel, set on a single day in 1924 and focusing on an affair between a servant girl and a young upper-class man, will remind readers in mood and tone of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I also eagerly anticipate Green Metropolis: The Extraordinary Landscapes of New York City as Nature, History, and Design (Knopf, Apr.) by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. The woman who helped to launch the restoration of Central Park in the 1980s leads us on a tour of seven urban green spaces, from Staten Island and Queens’s Jamaica Bay to Manhattan’s High Line and Roosevelt Island.—Wilda Williams
Women and crime: a pair for the ages
It’s been a wild crime spree since last September, when the Library of America released two volumes (Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s and Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s). The titles in each volume were selected by suspense/mystery maven, blogger, and editor Sarah Weinman, and the book-release party featuring a Q&A with author Megan Abbott whetted my appetite for more, more, more women crime writers, please. But then I got greedy: How about some modern stuff? Hand it over, in small bills.
Luckily, the boodle is big at the women crime writer bank these days. It’s a new golden age. Alison Gaylin, whose splendid “Brenna Spector” series kept me entranced, has written a breakout thriller of psychological suspense, her first hardcover for publisher Morrow. What Remains of Me is to be released February 23, so it’s technically not a spring book, but it is a harbinger.
After Gaylin, the deluge. March brings Danish coauthors Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbøl’s fantastic “Nina Borg” series to an end with The Considerate Killer (Soho Crime). Even if it’s a tad less fantastic than Nina’s previous adventures, it’s a must for fans of complex, kick-ass heroines and, of course, for completists who need to know how and where Nina ends up.
Speaking of kick-ass, Elizabeth Hand’s Hard Light: A Cass Neary Crime Novel (Minotaur: St. Martin’s, Apr.), the third series entry, stars one of my favorite hard-living antiheroines, punk photographer Cass Neary. She’s in London this time out (after hair-raising experiences in Iceland and Maine), and she’s waiting for her man. Long-lost lover boy Quinn is MIA; maybe something to do with all the baddies looking for him and all the money he owes around London town? No matter: Cass hooks up with an Amy Winehouse type and attracts all the wrong sorts of people. Cass’s legion of fans will snap up this one for sure.
Then in May, it’s time to hide out on Wilde Lake (Morrow) with crime novel queenpin Laura Lippman’s Luisa “Lu” Brant and her family. Lu, following in her father’s footsteps as a state’s attorney in Maryland, dredges up childhood memories of a drowning while trying the case of a mentally ill drifter accused of murder. Lippman’s characters are usually on the “right” side of the law, but they definitely have their dark sides—and their family secrets. Thank heavens for that. In her Prepub Alert column (11/16/15), editor Barbara Hoffert noted that the plot of Lippman’s latest stand-alone has many parallels to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; the author said this was intentional but added that the novel was “well under way” when HarperCollins announced the acquisition of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, “and it was completed before that novel was published.” Can’t wait to swim in those waters.
My final pick in this women’s crime blotter is a nonfiction work by historian and author Erika Janik (Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine). Its title pretty much sums it up: Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction (Beacon, Apr.). Janik looks at “women’s place” in early crime fiction and in real life and how these fore-godmothers paved the way to “a modern professional life for women on the [police] force and in popular culture.” Go, old-timey gone girls, go!—Liz French
Food & drink
There are a wealth of terrific cookbooks and related titles coming out this spring. Sabrina Ghayour’s debut, Persiana, was one of LJ’s Best Cookbooks of 2014, and her follow-up, Sirocco: Fabulous Flavors from the Middle East (Clarkson Potter: Crown, May), which highlights the use of pantry staples and unusual flavor combinations to elevate everyday dishes, looks like it’ll be just as good. Carey Jones is one of the best cocktail writers around, and her upcoming Brooklyn Bartender: A Modern Guide to Cocktails and Spirits (Black Dog & Leventhal, May) profiles three dozen bars, offers advice on equipment and techniques, and collects 300 cocktail recipes from Brooklyn establishments, organizing them by spirit. In addition to an immediately evident talent for inventing book titles, Tyler Kord is chef-owner of New York’s No. 7 restaurant and No. 7 Sub shops. His first book, A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches (Clarkson Potter: Crown, Jun.), which is illustrated by William Wegman, is filled with ruminations on sandwich philosophy, love, self-loathing, Lil’ Wayne, and getting drunk in the shower, as well as recipes.
Marlene Matar’s The Aleppo Cookbook: Celebrating the Legendary Cuisine of Syria (Interlink, Mar.) turns its attention to one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, which is also home to one of the most distinguished and vibrant cuisines. In somethingtofoodabout: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs (Clarkson Potter: Crown, Apr.; see the review, p. 122), musician Questlove applies his boundless curiosity to the world of food, interviewing ten innovative chefs about creativity, cooking, and anything else that happens to percolate. Jaya Saxena takes readers to what were once some of the most popular restaurants in America in The Book of Lost Recipes: The Best Signature Dishes from Historic Restaurants Rediscovered (Page Street, Jun.). She includes the chopped liver from New York’s Moskowitz & Lupowitz, the fried fish cakes and baked beans from Horn & Hardart Automat in Philadelphia, and the blintzes at Ashkenaz Deli in Chicago.—Stephanie Klose
Fixer-uppers, fandom, and first love
As a fan of Jonathan and Drew Scott, I had to pick their debut book, Dream Home: The Property Brothers’ Ultimate Guide to Finding & Fixing Your Perfect House (Houghton Harcourt, Apr.). The twins know the real estate and renovation business—it’s something they’ve become famous for via their HGTV home renovation and design shows, such as Property Brothers and Buying & Selling. In the book, they advise on whether it’s better to renovate or move and the best ways to approach each. Topics include renovation best practices (both for safety and to maximize resale potential), what projects homeowners can tackle themselves, and working with experts. Devotees of the Scotts’ series will find much to enjoy—the book is written in the same chatty, approachable tone that they display on the shows and illustrated with examples such as their move to Las Vegas and the remodel they detailed on Property Brothers: At Home. While I’m not buying or renovating now, this is a book I’m going to keep for the future. As I suspect many fans will, I chose this title for the brothers, but I stayed for the commonsense, can-do advice.
I was drawn as a fan as well to William Skidelsky’s Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession (Atria, May). Skidelsky and I share a favorite tennis player—the Swiss great Roger Federer, winner of 17 Grand Slam titles. The author’s account of watching and loving Federer follows in the steps of other works that focus on the player’s grace and awe-inspiring shots on court. Skidelsky writes also about more general changes to tennis over the years, such as the introduction of composite rackets and their impact on play, as well as Federer’s innovations—including the SABR (“sneak attack by Roger”) move of returning second serves as a half volley from the service line. While the “and me” segments of the book, in which Skidelsky documents his own life, lag at times, I’m still finding the title an engaging read for the Federer acolyte. And there are many of us—so beloved is the Swiss player that it’s been said every court is like his home court.
Another book I’m reading that explores some aspects of fandom (though less platonic than the above) is CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush (Morrow, Apr.), edited by Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton. The editors write that the “crushes reflect pop culture time capsules, bottling both the era and the crush forever,” and so they do, with many throughout tied to particular times—think Jared Leto on My So-Called Life. Not all are contemporary personages (or even real people—one entry is on a video game character). Some writers are over their crushes, and some get to meet them in later years. Reading this volume has made me reflect on my own childhood celebrity crushes—I suspect many will relate to this feeling of nostalgia.
Lastly, two of my favorite authors, Nina LaCour and David Levithan, are collaborating on You Know Me Well (Griffin: St. Martin’s, Jun.), a YA novel about friendship and first love, with likely crossover appeal. It’s set in San Francisco and told from the alternating perspectives of Kate, who has a crush on her friend’s cousin Violet, whom she’s never met, and Mark, who loves his best friend Ryan. I’d be excited for a new book by either author, but one by both? I’m ecstatic.—Amanda Mastrull
Bette-Lee Fox is Managing Editor, Barbara Hoffert is Prepub Alert Editor, and Stephanie Klose is Media Editor, LJ; Kate DiGirolomo is SELF-e Community Coordinator, Liz French is Senior Editor, Amanda Mastrull is Assistant Editor, Stephanie Sendaula is Associate Editor, and Wilda Williams is Fiction Editor, LJ Book Review
In this passage from Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu (S. & S., Apr.; reprinted with the publisher’s permission), Abdel Kader Haidara smuggles irreplaceable manuscripts downriver, a bare step ahead of the jihadi who would destroy them.
[T]he morals enforcer delivered a chilling message. “You need to bring us those manuscripts,” he said, “and we are going to burn them.”
In the gathering darkness, with Timbuktu’s jihadi leaders demanding the manuscripts and the members of the Crisis Committee promising to deliver them, but stalling for time, a lone vessel left from Toya on a test run. The thirty-foot boat motored down the center of the river, passing flat mud banks, thatched huts, and low dunes silhouetted against the twilight sky.…
Swells thrashed against the vessel as it cut through the water toward Djenné. Then, with alarm, the couriers and captains heard an engine and the whirl of rotor blades. A French attack helicopter swooped down low over the water and hovered above the craft. The pilots shone spotlights on the boat, blinding those onboard. “Open the footlockers,” they demanded over a loudspeaker. The French warned the crew that they would sink the boat on suspicion of smuggling weapons if the couriers refused. The terrified teenaged couriers fumbled with the locks beneath the glare, flung the chests open, and then stepped aside. The pilots could see that the chests were filled with only paper. The helicopters flew off.
Shortly afterward, twenty pinasses, each carrying fifteen metal chests filled with manuscripts, motored in a convoy down the Niger from a port near Timbuktu. [Archivist and historian Abdel Kader] Haidara and [Emily] Brady [an American supporter] had decided that the boats should travel in flotillas, both to speed up the evacuation and provide, they hoped, a certain safety in numbers. Passing beyond the monochromatic emptiness of Tuareg territory, they reached a transition zone where the arid Saharan wastes give way to more fertile climes—palm trees, thickets of low bushes. Ahead lay Lake Debo, the inland sea formed by the seasonal flooding of central Mali’s inland Niger Delta.…
But as they approached the lake, the Niger seemed to disappear before their eyes, swallowed up by a sea of grass. “It is in truth a singular element, being neither land nor water, but a strange mixture of both,” [Félix] Dubois [wrote in Timbuctoo the Mysterious]. “From a depth of six to eight feet the tall grasses emerge, thick and green, and wearing all the appearance of a great field…. We are no longer upon the water, but seem…to be sliding over grassy steppes streaked with watery paths.” The aquatic meadow formed an ideal sanctuary during this period of chaos for bandits. As the convoy threaded its way along channels through the grass, a dozen turbaned men brandishing Kalashnikovs emerged from the dense vegetation. They ordered the flotilla to stop. Forcing open the locks, the men thumbed through the Arabic texts and brightly colored geometric patterns covering the brittle pages. “We will keep these,” they announced.
The couriers pleaded with them and offered their cheap Casio watches, silver bracelets, rings, and necklaces. When that failed, they got on the phone with Haidara, in Bamako. He urged the bandits to release the couriers and the cargo, promising to deliver a sizeable ransom as soon as possible.
“Trust me on this, we will get you your money,” Haidara said. Haidara couldn’t afford not to pay them, he would later explain: thousands of other manuscripts were already heading downriver. The couriers waited nervously beside their metal trunks while the bandits debated what to do. At last, the gunmen, understanding Haidara’s predicament, released the boats and the manuscripts. One of Haidara’s agents, as promised, delivered the cash four days later. At Brady’s home in Bamako, Haidara spent fifteen hours a day talking simultaneously on eight cell phones to his team of couriers, whom he had instructed to brief him every fifteen minutes when they were on the road. Huge sheets of brown butcher paper taped to one wall tracked the names of the teenagers, their latest cell phone contacts, the number of footlockers each was carrying, their locations, and conditions en route. Brady sent text messages to her donors informing them of progress: 75 FOOTLOCKERS GOING THROUGH, OUR KIDS HAVE MADE IT ACROSS LAKE DEBO, ARE NOW IN MOPTI.