Barbara's Picks, Apr. 2012, Pt. 3 1/2: Lillian Hellman, Carole King, and the Fate of Nations

Brothers, Caroline. Hinterland. Bloomsbury USA, dist. by Macmillan. Apr. 2012. 256p. ISBN 9781608196784. pap. $15. LITERARY
As Brothers reported in a front-page piece in the New York Times, hundreds of immigrants from dozens of nations gather daily in Calais, readying themselves for the mad dash to Britain and, they hope, a better life. To add depth to this story, she turned to fiction, offering a first novel that features 14-year-old Afghan orphan Aryan and his eight-year-old brother, Kabir. In case they are separated, Aryan teaches Kabir the names of the capitals they must pass through‚ Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Athens, Rome, Paris, and London‚ as they experience hunger, exhaustion, and exploitation but also amazement and adventure. At first glance a strong, affecting read of special interest to those following current events; look for some important truths.

Lupton, Rosamund. Afterwards. Crown. Apr. 2012. 384p. ISBN 9780307716545. $25; eISBN 9780307716569. THRILLER
Grace is overcome as she battles to reach daughter Jenny, trapped inside her blazing school. Afterwards, when they both wake up in the hospital, badly burned, Grace learns that the fire was no accident and was in fact set to eliminate Jenny, who’s still very much in danger. British author Lupton started off big with Sister, tellingly both a New York Times best seller and a Times Editors Choice, and she seems to be keeping things big. U.K. reviews have been exemplary (Compulsive, Independent; extraordinary, the Mail on Sunday), and there’s every expectation that this author will keep building. Anyone who loves thrillers should take a look at this.

Acemoglu, Daron & James A. Robinson. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. Crown. Mar. 2012. 544p. ISBN 9780307719218. $30; eISBN 9780307719232. ECONOMICS
No, it’s not geography or technology or the clash of civilizations that determine a nation’s success or failure, t’s that nation’s particular institutions‚ the economic, political, and social rules that both shape and bind societies. So argue Acemoglu, Killian Professor of Economics at MIT and recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal awarded to distinguished economists under 40, and Robinson, Florence Professor of Government at Harvard University. To make their case, the authors compare fast-growing Botswana with struggling Congo, for instance, and U.S. billionaire Bill Gates with Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim to show how deep-seated cultural beliefs can make a real difference in wealth- and hence nation-building. Provocative stuff, backed by lots of brain power, and I like the broad-ranging approach. Look for this one.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman. Bloomsbury, dist. by Macmillan. Apr. 2012. ISBN 9781596913639. $30. BIOGRAPHY
Columbia history professor Kessler-Harris, whose In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America won the Joan Kelly, Philip Taft, Herbert Hoover, and Bancroft prizes, here takes on difficult woman Lillian Hellman to rescue her from her own reputation. Remembered more for her relationship with Dashiel Hammett, mudslinging with Mary McCarthy, fiery HUAC appearance, and ubiquitous cigarette, Hellman was also (of course) the author of searing plays like The Little Foxes. Kessler-Harris doesn’t deny the drama queen but aims to give us a more rounded picture, explaining rather than explaining away the contradictions. It’s been 25 years since the publication of William Wright’s Lillian Hellman, the Image, the Woman; now is time for a reassessment that will grab our imagination.

King, Carole. A Natural Woman. Grand Central. Apr. 2012. ISBN 9781455512614. $27.99. lrg. prnt. CD: Hachette Audio. MEMOIR
Released in 1971, King’s Tapestry still holds the record for album by a female that remained longest on the charts, as well as longest in the top spot. As recently as 2010, Live at the Troubadour, recorded with James Taylor, came in at no. 4 and sold 400,000 copies. All of which suggests that there’s a big audience for this memoir by the four-time Grammy Award winner, who ranges from childhood to motherhood to long-standing career but says, sweetly, that the journey probably started with my grandparents.

Sandel, Michael J. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Farrar. Apr. 2012. 256p. ISBN 9780374203030. $27. SOCIAL SCIENCE
We know money can’t buy us love, but in a market-driven age it seems capable of buying just about everything else. Professor of Government at Harvard University and author of the international best seller Justice, Sandel is clearly alarmed at how much market thinking has permeated areas where such valuation seems wholly unwarranted, from medicine, education, and sports to the arts and personal relationships. Should we really pay kids to get good grades, or establish for-profit prisons, or sell citizenship to those who can afford it? The shift from having a market economy to being a market society, as Sandel would have it, seems to have coarsened our sensibilities and raises real ethical issues. Sandel’s book should make us think and is one of those nonfiction titles that would make for great book-club discussion. Hear, hear!

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.