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Percival Everett, attends the Booker Prize 2022 shortlist photocall, 2022, London, England. Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images

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What We’re Reading

Zed contributors review biographies about Elaine May and Barbara Walters, as well as the latest novels from Percival Everett and Taffy Brodesser-Akner / BY Zed Staff / July 4th, 2024

The latest mini-reviews from Zed contributors delve into delightful titles that enchanted them. There’s Percival Everett’s extraordinary novel James, which turns the Huck Finn story inside out by telling it from the perspective of Jim, an educated slave. Taffy Brodesser-Akner of Fleishman is in Trouble delivers wit with insight in The Long Island Compromise, which tackles complex issues like immigration and capitalism.

If you are a biography hound, the must-reads right now are about two American glass-ceiling smashers:  comedian and filmmaker Elaine May, 92, and the late, legendary TV anchor Barbara Walters. But if you’d rather turn your hair white, scare up a copy of Horror Movie by Paul Tremblay, a chilling twist on the “cursed film” genre racing up the charts.

Obsessive Book Buyers: Zoomer editors have carefully curated our book coverage to ensure you find the perfect read. We may earn a commission on books you buy by clicking on a cover image or title.

1Jamesby Percival Everett

Home Base: Los Angeles, Calif.

Author’s Take: “I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I love that novel. It’s the first ‘modern’ novel. … It doesn’t have any deficiencies that I’m addressing. [My novel James] addresses what Mark Twain would not have been able to address.”

Favourite Lines: “It always pays to give white folks what they want, so I stepped into the yard and called out into the night, “Who dat dere in da dark lak dat?” … Those boys couldn’t sneak up on a blind and deaf man while a band was playing.”

Review: Everett’s new novel is sure to expand his readership beyond those introduced to his sharp, intelligent work by the 2023 film, American Fiction, adapted from his 2001 novel, Erasure. James, too, is an adaptation, being a fabulous retelling of Mark Twain’s 1884 picaresque, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this time from the perspective of the enslaved character, Jim.

Large parts of James overlap with the plot of Twain’s novel. Jim runs away after learning that he is to be sold and thus separated from his wife and daughter, although he intends to return for them. Almost immediately, he runs into Huckleberry, who has faked his own murder using pig’s blood, and who is also looking to get away. They want to travel north, but instead get swept south by the Mississippi River, evading one disaster after another. Both are at risk of discovery, but as an escaped slave, Jim’s life is on the line.

Focusing the narrative on Jim enables Everett to foreground the precariousness of Jim’s existence, and allows him to show Jim’s humanity in a way that Twain was unable to. Everett fashions Jim as a writer. When he meets a group of slaves, they ask if they can get him anything, and he says, yes, a pencil. They are flabbergasted. He can write? He writes, he reads, he argues with famous philosophers in his dreams. But it will all be for naught if he can’t survive.

Jim and Huck are separated more than once, but they keep finding each other. In fact, their lives are eternally bound together in ways readers are best left to discover on their own. The novel ends where it begins, in the hearth of family. How it gets there is a journey readers will admire. James both renews enthusiasm for Twain’s book and adds layers of insight that only a novelist of Everett’s power could provide. Now the great New Zealand actor/filmmaker Taika Waititi is in talks to direct a film adaptation. Michael Bryson

2Horror Movie by Paul Tremblay

Home Base: Boston, Mass.

Author’s Take:I have no idea what’s scary. I just know what makes me feel weird. And I just go with it.” 

Favourite Line: “The mask is ugly and grotesque and familiar, and we cannot stop staring at it because all monsters are mirrors.”

Review:  Some believe horror fiction (and movies) are best reserved for the Halloween season, like carols for Christmas. Some of us, though, like our horror year-round, and believe there are few things better than a chilling tale for the summer.

With Horror Movie, Paul Tremblay, one of our most highly regarded contemporary horror writers, has provided the horror novel of the season, if not the year. The novel revolves around an independent film, also titled Horror Movie. Filmed largely in an abandoned school in the early ’90s, the film has built a devoted fan following, despite the fact that only three scenes have ever been released, posted on YouTube (with the screenplay) in 2008. The film has developed a reputation as “cursed” – not only was it never released, but virtually everyone involved with the project has died.

Now Hollywood has come calling, with plans to remake or reboot Horror Film “I’m not sure of the correct term for what it is they will be doing,” Tremblay writes. “Is it a remake if the original film, shot more than thirty years ago, was never screened?” The reboot will get the assistance of the only survivor of the original movie, the unnamed actor who played The Thin Kid, the central character (the villain? A victim? A demon?) of the film.

Narrated by the actor, the novel shifts between past and present, from the making of the film to its aftermath to the modern reboot, while also shifting between the story and the film’s screenplay. The effect is willfully disorienting, as (fictional) reality overlaps with the film; the crew members and actors share names and situations with characters in the film, events and incidents blurring into one another until the reader – like some of the characters in the book – no longer know what is “real” and what is cinema. 

It’s a bravura performance from Tremblay, part cerebral and experimental, part thrilling and terrifying, a genuinely, deliciously unsettling reading experience. — Robert Wiersema

3Long Island Compromise by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Home Base: New York

Author’s Take: You fall in love with the characters you create, and you want them to be okay because they seem real to you, but that is not interesting or dramatic.

Favourite Line: “The Fletcher children had not been immune to the inertia of all rich kids, which was to lack the imagination that the money could ever stop coming in.” 

Review: Everyone loves poor-little-rich-kids sagas, as the popularity of the HBO drama Succession attests. But this epic tale about the Jewish American dream turns on two nightmares: the 1980 kidnapping of the Fletcher family patriarch, Carl, who turned his father’s formula for styrofoam into a multi-million-dollar business, and the day his entitled kids realize their quarterly payments – which netted them a minimum of $500,000 each – have dried up. 

The author, a New York Times Magazine staff writer who turned her bestselling 2019 debut Fleishman is in Trouble into an acclaimed Hulu series, has a gift for sly witticisms, which are on full display here. Carl’s wife Ruth delivers sarcastic one-liners with a bullet: “Shirley MacLaine over here,” she retorts, after Carl recounts a vivid dream where his dead mother talked to him. The columns on the houses in the wealthy Long Island enclave of Middle Rock are described as “Corinthian, Doric, Ionic, tragic.” Then there’s the title, which is the nickname the Fletcher kids give to a sex act good Jewish girls do to preserve their virginity. They drop it into a conversation with their parents, and barely hold it together when Carl announces it would be a good title for his memoir. Compromise in all its guises is at the heart of the novel: ethical, moral, rational and rotten. 

This well-braided story about persecution, immigration, intergenerational trauma and capitalism unfurls slowly, sometimes maddeningly so, as it backs up and jumps forward in time. Although we learn early on about the day Carl was kidnapped for a $250,000 ransom and how it changed him and his family, we don’t know the details of that defining moment – or who masterminded it and took the money  – until the last chapter. 

It’s unsurprising that, given our gluttony for crumbs about how the 1 per cent live, Brodesser-Akner is now adapting the novel for AppleTV+. I can’t wait to see if Ruth’s wisecracks make it verbatim into the screenplay, and how the author will depict the depraved middle child, Beamer, who binges on drugs, alcohol, food and BDSM sex with equal fervour. Kim Honey

4The Return of Ellie Blackby Emiko Jean

Home Base: Vancouver, Wash.

Author’s Take:I’ve read some reviews about the gritty nature of the book. I would want people to know that was intentional. There’s a tendency to gentle violence against women sometimes. I thought it was important for this book to really give Ellie her voice back in telling her whole story, however gruesome it is and hard to hear.” 

Favourite Line: “My name is Elizabeth Black. I think I’m missing.”

Review: Regular readers of mysteries and thrillers are fairly tough to surprise. We think we’ve seen all the twists, all the turns and reversals; we think we can see what’s coming. And most of the time, we’re right. With The Return of Ellie Black, the adult thriller debut from young adult writer Emiko Jean, I did not see it coming. Like Jessica Knoll, the bestselling author of Bright Young Women and Luckiest Girl Alive who blurbed the book, “I gasped when Jean delivered a truly jaw-dropping twist.”

The novel, set in Washington State, begins with a bit of a twist: Two years after vanishing without a trace, teenager Ellie Black is found in the wilderness. Black’s reappearance gives hope to police Detective Chelsea Calhoun, whose sister vanished, in similar circumstances, 20 years earlier. But all is not what it seems. Black can’t – or won’t – say where she has been or who she has been with, and her actions following her return seem strange. It’s up to Calhoun to reckon not only with what happened to Black, and to her sister, but to deal with what comes next.

Shifting between Black’s and Calhoun’s points of view, The Return of Ellie Black is a powerful, often disturbing exploration of vulnerability and trauma, a calculus of what lives matter, what value we give to those who are gone and those who remain behind. At a narrative level, the novel surprises at every turn as it moves from past to present, from the illusion of safety to the darkness of the human heart. It’s a genuinely chilling read, even without the twist that will leave you breathless. R.W.

5Miss May Does Not Exist by Carrie Courogen

Home Base: New York

Author’s take: “There are so many more women who worked in Hollywood at that time who didn’t get the chances she had because they weren’t as lucky.”

Favourite lines: “No one will trust her with a film. The phrase rings with a double standard. It’s true that Elaine’s behavior on Mikey and Nicky was erratic, even a little selfish in some ways. But she was no worse than many of her male peers.”

Review: With this sharply observed biography, pop culture journalist Carrie Courogen aims to give lie to her book’s title, borrowed from the liner notes of a 1958 comedy album Elaine May cut with partner Mike Nichols. As Courogen details in Miss May Does Not Exist, Nichols and May created the blueprint for contemporary sketch comedy in New York before being scooped up by Hollywood. The late Nichols gained great success as director of The Graduate, Silkwood and Working Girl, to name three blockbusters. May, too, became a director – in 1972, she was the fourth woman inducted into the Directors Guild of America. But she was less successful, notably helming 1987’s infamous Ishtar (Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman), a name synonymous at the time with box office disaster. (It has since been critically reassessed). Still, her writing, sharpened in the theatre, was excellent and made May a coveted script doctor.

Courogen shows how systemic and pervasive sexism thwarted May’s ambitions. But she also makes clear that the mercurial, multi-hyphenate “genius” of the book’s subtitle was often her own worst enemy. She refused to play nice with studio bosses or to leverage the press to tell her side of the story, even going so far as to decline writer credits for hits like Heaven Can Wait, Reds and Tootsie, all of which she co-wrote. Courogen dives deep into archival interviews with marquee cohorts like Beatty, Peter Falk, Charles Grodin and Walter Matthau to chronicle May’s groundbreaking if capricious career – though one wishes May, now 92, had cooperated with the author. Readers will find themselves cheering May’s punk-rock-style obstinance one moment and lamenting it the next, but every page crackles with dazzling factoids and Courogen’s sassy reportage, equal parts scholarly and knock-kneed.  Kim Hughes 


6You Are Here by David Nicholls

Home Base: London

Author’s take:  “Usually, we think of love stories as being metropolitan and urban — you know, that great tradition of city romcoms. It felt like a funny idea to take some of that energy, but put it in a wet field. ”

Favourite line:s “It’s true I do have time and freedom and I love it, sometimes. But the notion that I should be “making the most of it,” travelling the world or out every night, there’s a kind of tyranny in that too, that life has to be full, like your life’s a hole that you have to keep filling, a leaky bucket.”

Review:  It is anything but love at first sight; the meet, not exactly cute. What it is is a slow-burn  –  literally; a delightfully middle-aged romance, set against the backdrop of a coast-to-coast walk across Northern England. Two hundred miles of confidences, miscues and roads not taken, from the author most famous for writing One Day, and who does seriocomic like few others.

Our players? Michael, 42, a high-school teacher, is all bushy beard and a cart of nerdy geography facts, who walks to avoid thinking about his recent divorce. His concerned friend, Cleo, gathers a small party to accompany him for the first few days, including her old friend Marnie, 38, a copy editor, who is also divorced. Marnie’s friends have all married and moved out of London, and both Michael and Marnie are in throes of a learned loneliness – the book is very good at unpacking its various manifestations  – and both have accepted a kind of stasis, even as they are thrown together on a 10-day hike.

“The risks involved in romantic love, the potential for hurt and betrayal and indignity, far outweighed the consolations,” Nicholls writes. So funny and so affectionate; this is Nicholls territory, for sure. And oh so British. One cannot help but feel like you are on the trek with these two, envisioning all the  landscapes they cross. (“The sky made her think of the phrase ‘robin’s egg blue,’ though she’d never seen a robin’s egg. The hazy blue of an airmail letter then…”). One passage, where they share each other’s playlists as they walk, is so vivid and absurd, that you can immediately see the inevitable TV series. Toward the end, Marnie tells Michael that Cleo warned her he was wry. “At least I wasn’t whimsical,” he snaps back. Shinan Govani


7The Rulebreaker: The Life and Times of Barbara Waltersby Susan Pate

Home Base: Washington, D.C.

Author’s take:  “In a larger sense, she was proud she was the original. If you’re talking about women in TV journalism, you cannot start the conversation without naming Barbara Walters … she was so funny and remarkable and fearless. ”

Favourite line: “Barbara didn’t invent the TV newsmaker interview … but it was Barbara who nurtured, expanded, perfected, promoted, and finally defined the form, the conversation-on-camera with headliners who were trying to make a splash, stage a comeback, promote a movie, or occasionally, influence a jury.” 

 Review:  A book that gives Walters her due, but is by no means a hagiography, this is the first full bio of the legendary newswoman – a fascinating sweep of history, celebrity and women in the workplace, over half a century. Written by the Washington bureau chief of USA Today  (Page’s previous biographies include one on Nancy Pelosi), The Rulebreaker covers it all: the hustle and the ache, the dopamine-giving thrill of the chase, and all the tricks of the trade. (“You’ve got to know your questions, so you can throw them all away,” as Walters said, musing on the immense amount of homework she would do for interviews – writing 50 to 100 questions on three-by-five-inch cards).

We get a full accounting, of course: the culture-quake that happened when Walters became the first “Million Dollar Baby,” back in 1976, in the world of TV anchors. Likewise, her legendary rivalry with Diane Sawyer! Boom: her genius creation of The View. The most compelling chapters offer a tick-tock of historic interviews: machinations involved in scoring Fidel Castro at the height of the Cold War, and her seminal sit-down with Monica Lewinsky, in the midst of that mess, which took a remarkable 406 days to nail down, and still sits as the most-watched interview in the history of broadcast TV.

Naturally, the pages swim in a pool of boldface names: everyone from Adnan Khashoggi to Ann Landers to Roy Cohn, from Mike Tyson to the Reagans to Katherine Hepburn! The book almost reads as a kind of social history. And yet … though no woman had risen as high as she did in her world, her final years, as Page reveals, did not give much comfort, alas. “She had always believed that if she wasn’t in the spotlight, if she wasn’t in command, that she would no longer be welcome at the intimate dinners and splashy galas that meant so much to her. Now she turned those fears into a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing away friends and isolating herself.” —S.G.


8Open Throatby Henry Hoke

Home Base: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Author’s take: “That was the only way I could write about L.A., to write not as me. I had to be my own version of this wildcat in a city.”

Favourite lines: “But if I get close enough to a creature’s eye I can see what it sees and in the owl’s eye I see ellay clearly/more lights than I could ever count stretch out into the darkness and don’t stop stretching/I’m scared of how far they go/I get why people can’t decide on one name/this can’t all be ellay/”

Review: Once upon a time there was a  mountain lion that lived in Griffith Park, near the Hollywood sign, cut off from everyone (and every other cat), by the L.A. freeway. It was a “long death,” P-22 says in this tiny, perfect novella by New York author Henry Hoke, told in the mountain lion’s voice. The author imagines the P-22’s thoughts as it searches for food and water and observes hikers wandering by.

The real P-22, so named because it was the 22nd puma in a National Park Service study, was captured in 2022 and euthanized days later after vets concluded it was severely underweight, had chronic health conditions and had been hit by a car.  The wildcat was so famous, there was an Instagram account devoted to “L.A.’s loneliest bachelor.” 

In Open Throat, P-22 is starving because of a drought. It calls the homeless denizens of a nearby tent city “my people,” because they leave food scraps near its redoubt. When a bad actor sets the tents ablaze, sparking fires across Santa Monica, P-22 is driven into the city. He meets a teenage girl, “Young Slaughter,” and she hides the cat for a short period of time. There is one great adventure in “Diznee” for Young Slaughter and the lion, whom she calls Heckitt (for the goddess Hecate), and then a downturn.

The writing is ingenious and compelling in Hoke’s fifth book, which has been long-listed for the Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award. There is a genderqueer vibe throughout, with P-22 using they/them pronouns, and through his friendship with the girl, who refers to the male cat as “her” and “goddess.” There is also a lovely amount of kindness, but it sits aside destructive relationships, too. Indeed, the full range of emotion is packed into this empathetic tale of a tail, which is a feat of writing. Susan Grimbly



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Queen Elizabeth II’s Aide Reveals Details of Life in Royal Pandemic Lockdown in New Addition to BookAngela Kelly, who's worked for the Queen for 20 years, discusses everything from cutting the Queen's hair to "the light and laughter that was shared ... even in the darkest moments."

New Leonard Cohen Story Collection, ‘A Ballet of Lepers,’ Set for October ReleaseThe collection features a novel, short stories and a radio play written between 1956 and 1961.

Archived Letters Reveal How Toni Morrison Helped MacKenzie Scott Meet Future Husband Jeff BezosBezos hired Scott at the hedge fund where he worked after receiving a recommendation from Morrison. Shortly thereafter, the pair married and Scott helped Bezos launch Amazon.

Prince Harry’s Memoir is Set to Rock the MonarchyFriends say the California-based royal got a million-pound book deal to write "an intimate take on his feeling about the family."

European Jewish Congress Asks Publisher to Pull Anne Frank BookThe Congress says 'The Betrayal of Anne Frank' has "deeply hurt the memory of Anne Frank, as well as the dignity of the survivors and the victims of the Holocaust."

Canadian Author Details Anne Frank Cold-Case Investigation That Named Surprise Suspect in Her Family’s Betrayal in New BookAhead of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Frank's 'The Diary of a Young Girl' in June, a team that included a retired FBI agent and around 20 historians, criminologists and data specialists identified a relatively unknown figure as a leading suspect in revealing her family's hideout.

Man Who Tricked Authors Into Handing Over Unpublished Manuscripts Arrested by FBI in New YorkFilippo Bernardini, an employee of a well known publication house, has been arrested for stealing hundreds of unpublished manuscripts.

Hollywood Legend Betty White Has a Last Laugh in New Biographic Comic BookThe creators of the biographical comic book have released similar books about Hollywood legends like Carrie Fisher, Lucille Ball, David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor.

Barack Obama Reveals His List of Books That Left “A Lasting Impression” in 2021Obama's favourite 2021 reads include two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead's 'Harlem Shuffle' and 'Klara and the Sun,' by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro

“Interview With the Vampire” Author Anne Rice Dies at 80 — Tributes Pour in From Stuart Townsend and OthersThe author, who was best known for her work in gothic fiction, died on Saturday evening as a result of complications from a stroke.

Norma Dunning wins $25,000 Governor General’s English fiction prize for ‘Tainna’The Edmonton-based Inuk writer explores themes of displacement, loneliness and spirituality in six short stories

Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Giller prize for “What Strange Paradise”The former Globe and Mail reporter, who published "American War" to acclaim in 2017, tackles the global migrant refugee crisis in his second novel

South African Author Damon Galgut Wins the Booker Prize For ‘The Promise’Galgut received nominations for his 2003 and 2010 works before finally taking home the prize this year. 

Hollywood Legend Paul Newman Discusses Life, Acting and Aging Gracefully in Newly Discovered MemoirPublishers of the newly discovered memoir say the Hollywood legend wrote the book in the 1980s in response to the relentless media attention he received during that time.

Here’s What You Need to Know About the Toronto International Festival of AuthorsDirector Roland Gulliver lands in Toronto to open his second, much-expanded virtual festival with more than 200 events

Tanzanian Novelist Gurnah Wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for Depicting the Impact of Colonialism and Refugee StoriesGurnah, 72, is only the second writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win one of the world's most prestigious literary awards

Miriam Toews Garners Third Giller Prize Nomination for “Fight Night” after Shortlist AnnouncedSophomore efforts from novelists Omar El Akkad and Jordan Tannahill join debut books from Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia and Angélique Lalonde

Tina Brown’s New Book, ‘The Palace Papers’, Covers the Royal Family’s Reinvention After Diana’s Tragic DeathTina Brown's sequel to her 2007 release 'The Diana Chronicles' is set to hit shelves April 12, 2022. 

Audible.ca Releases Andrew Pyper’s Exclusive Audiobook “Oracle” For New Plus Catalogue LaunchThe thriller about a psychic FBI detective is one of 12,000 titles now available for free to members

Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen to Release Book Based On Their “Renegades” PodcastThe new book will feature a collection of candid, intimate and entertaining conversations

Prince Harry Will Publish a Memoir in Late 2022Harry says he's writing the book "not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become."


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