The first Friday of October has arrived and with it comes the return of McNally Robinson Booksellers' Chris Hall to the Classic 107 studio.
In addition to the latest picks in the What to Read feature, learn more about the busy return of events, book launches and the community classroom at McNally Robinson.
The Maniac by Benjamin Labatut
From one of contemporary literature's most exciting new voices, a haunting story centered on the Hungarian polymath John von Neumann, tracing the impact of his singular legacy on the dreams and nightmares of the twentieth century and the nascent age of AI
Benjamín Labatut's When We Cease to Understand the World electrified a global readership. A Booker Prize and National Book Award finalist, and one of the New York Times' Ten Best Books of the Year, it explored the life and thought of a clutch of mathematicians and physicists who took science to strange and sometimes dangerous new realms. In The MANIAC, Labatut has created a tour de force on an even grander scale.
A prodigy whose gifts terrified the people around him, John von Neumann transformed every field he touched, inventing game theory and the first programable computer, and pioneering AI, digital life, and cellular automata. Through a chorus of family members, friends, colleagues, and rivals, Labatut shows us the evolution of a mind unmatched and of a body of work that has unmoored the world in its wake.
The MANIAC places von Neumann at the center of a literary triptych that begins with Paul Ehrenfest, an Austrian physicist and friend of Einstein, who fell into despair when he saw science and technology become tyrannical forces; it ends a hundred years later, in the showdown between the South Korean Go Master Lee Sedol and the AI program AlphaGo, an encounter embodying the central question of von Neumann's most ambitious unfinished project: the creation of a self-reproducing machine, an intelligence able to evolve beyond human understanding or control.
A world of beauty and fabulous momentum, The MANIAC's unique blend of fact and fiction confronts us with the deepest questions we face as a species.
Tremor by Teju Cole
Life is hopeless but it is not serious. We have to have danced while we could and, later, to have danced again in the telling.
A weekend spent antiquing is shadowed by the colonial atrocities that occurred on that land. A walk at dusk is interrupted by casual racism. A loving marriage is riven by mysterious tensions. And a remarkable cascade of voices speaks out from a pulsing metropolis.
We're invited to experience these events and others through the eyes and ears of Tunde, a West African man working as a teacher of photography on a renowned New England campus. He is a reader, a listener, a traveler, drawn to many different kinds of stories: stories from history and epic; stories of friends, family, and strangers; stories found in books and films. Together these stories make up his days. In aggregate these days comprise a life.
Tremor is a startling work of realism and invention that engages brilliantly with literature, music, race, and history as it examines the passage of time and how we mark it. It is a reckoning with human survival amidst "history's own brutality, which refuses symmetries and seldom consoles," but it is also a testament to the possibility of joy. As he did in his magnificent debut Open City, Teju Cole once again offers narration with all its senses alert, a surprising and deeply essential work from a beacon of contemporary literature.
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
"'Let us descend,' the poet now began, 'and enter this blind world.'" --Inferno, Dante Alighieri
Let Us Descend is a reimagining of American slavery, as beautifully rendered as it is heart-wrenching. Searching, harrowing, replete with transcendent love, the novel is a journey from the rice fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans and into the fearsome heart of a Louisiana sugar plantation.
Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, is the reader's guide through this hellscape. As she struggles through the miles-long march, Annis turns inward, seeking comfort from memories of her mother and stories of her African warrior grandmother. Throughout, she opens herself to a world beyond this world, one teeming with spirits: of earth and water, of myth and history; spirits who nurture and give, and those who manipulate and take. While Ward leads readers through the descent, this, her fourth novel, is ultimately a story of rebirth and reclamation.
From one of the most singularly brilliant and beloved writers of her generation, this miracle of a novel inscribes Black American grief and joy into the very land--the rich but unforgiving forests, swamps, and rivers of the American South. Let Us Descend is Jesmyn Ward's most magnificent novel yet, a masterwork for the ages.
Dominion: The Railway and the Rise of Canada by Stephen Bown
Stephen R. Bown continues to revitalize Canadian history with this thrilling account of the engineering triumph that created a nation.
In The Company, his bestselling work of revisionist history, Stephen Bown told the dramatic, adventurous and bloody tale of Canada's origins in the fur trade. With Dominion he continues the nation's creation story with an equally gripping and eye-opening account of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In the late 19th century, demand for fur was in sharp decline. This could have spelled economic disaster for the venerable Hudson's Bay Company. But an idea emerged in political and business circles in Ottawa and Montreal to connect the disparate British colonies into a single entity that would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. With over 3,000 kilometers of track, much of it driven through wildly inhospitable terrain, the CPR would be the longest railway in the world and the most difficult to build. Its construction was the defining event of its era and a catalyst for powerful global forces.
The times were marked by greed, hubris, blatant empire building, oppression, corruption and theft. They were good for some, hard for most, disastrous for others. The CPR enabled a new country, but it came at a terrible price.
In recent years Canadian history has been given a rude awakening from the comforts of its myths. In Dominion, Stephen Bown again widens our view of the past to include the adventures and hardships of explorers and surveyors, the resistance of Indigenous peoples, and the terrific and horrific work of many thousands of labourers. His vivid portrayal of the powerful forces that were molding the world in the late 19th century provides a revelatory new picture of modern Canada's creation as an independent state.
Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World by Mary Beard
In her international bestseller SPQR, Mary Beard told the thousand-year story of ancient Rome, from its slightly shabby Iron Age origins to its reign as the undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean. Now, drawing on more than thirty years of teaching and writing about Roman history, Beard turns to the emperors who ruled the Roman Empire, beginning with Julius Caesar (assassinated 44 BCE) and taking us through the nearly three centuries--and some thirty emperors--that separate him from the boy-king Alexander Severus (assassinated 235 CE).
Yet Emperor of Rome is not your typical chronological account of Roman rulers, one emperor after another: the mad Caligula, the monster Nero, the philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Instead, Beard asks different, often larger and more probing questions: What power did emperors actually have? Was the Roman palace really so bloodstained? What kind of jokes did Augustus tell? And for that matter, what really happened, for example, between the emperor Hadrian and his beloved Antinous? Effortlessly combining the epic with the quotidian, Beard tracks the emperor down at home, at the races, on his travels, even on his way to heaven.
Along the way, Beard explores Roman fictions of imperial power, overturning many of the assumptions that we hold as gospel, not the least of them the perception that emperors one and all were orchestrators of extreme brutality and cruelty. Here Beard introduces us to the emperor's wives and lovers, rivals and slaves, court jesters and soldiers, and the ordinary people who pressed begging letters into his hand--whose chamber pot disputes were adjudicated by Augustus, and whose budgets were approved by Vespasian, himself the son of a tax collector.
With its finely nuanced portrayal of sex, class, and politics, Emperor of Rome goes directly to the heart of Roman fantasies (and our own) about what it was to be Roman at its richest, most luxurious, most extreme, most powerful, and most deadly, offering an account of Roman history as it has never been presented before.