Phineas Barnum (1810-1891), American hustler, huckster, and entertainer, is best known for Barnum and Bailey’s circus, billed as “the greatest show on earth.” Robert Wilson’s elegantly written Barnum (Simon & Schuster, $28) spotlights Barnum’s humbugs and hoaxes prior to the circus days, such as the former slave, Joice Heath, he passed off as George Washington’s 161-year-old nursemaid; the Fejee Mermaid, which was part fi sh, part monkey skeleton; and his long tour with five-year-old Charley Stratton dubbed “the little general” and renamed Tom Thumb. Barnum also constructed an Oriental Villa in Connecticut which ultimately burned to the ground, and lectured on temperance reform and money-making, in spite of his own spectacular bankruptcies. Wilson, the author of two previous biographies and editor of The American Scholar, resists the urge to editorialize but his meticulous research speaks for itself. Ultimately, Barnum emerges as complicated, vain, and selfserving, and in the words of one contemporary journalist, "Barnum appears to be a vain elderly man on the best possible terms with himself."
In 2003, Tim O'Brien began “a few short messages in a bottle that my kids might find tucked away in a dusty file cabinet long after my death.” Then his son Tad proposed he write a “maybe” book: which all writers do at the outset. “We are all writing our maybe books full of maybe tomorrows, and each maybe tomorrow brings another maybe tomorrow and then another until the last line of the last page receives its period.” If this sounds hokey, think again. Dad’s Maybe Book (Houghton Mifflin, $28) explores ambiguity. Tender, funny, and poignant, it reveals O’Brien as father, magician, Vietnam vet, and reader (especially of Hemingway) as well as O’Brien the writer. Though he believes his obituary will call him a “war writer” really he is anti-war, anti-absolutism. “This entire maybe book, like our lives, is full of maybes…and it’s okay to say ‘maybe’ even when you believe you have access to some self-evident ironclad miraculous and eternal Truth.” The most poignant chapter—“An Immodest and Altogether Earnest Proposal”—suggests we eliminate the word war from our vocabulary, substituting killing people, including children. This reframes not only our best war literature but also our values themselves.
This story of a mass shooting at a rural university explores surprising and interesting questions, like what happens in a marriage when "love can mature into a void"; how in the effort to distance ourselves from pain we can lose the ability to come across as experienced; and how with devastating results, the traumatized and lost make friends with depression "so you no longer have to perceive it as a weakness." I set aside more pressing reading projects to "dip into" this debut novel then I couldn't put it down. I was blown away by the writing and the masterful use of 2nd person. There's never a contrived, sentimental or sensational note although in less capable hands the subject matter lends itself to such pitfalls. An extraordinary debut.