John Williams of the New York Times reports for NY1 on newly released book titles and the world of publishing in "The Book Reader."
Two recently published novels draw laughter from unlikely sources.
James McBride is best known for his 1996 memoir, “The Color of Water.”
His new book is “The Good Lord Bird,” a novel about the fiery abolitionist John Brown, who famously raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in what was then Virginia in 1859.
In McBride’s novel, we see that raid and much more, through the eyes of the fictional Henry Shackleford, nicknamed Onion.
As a young slave, Shackleford takes up with Brown’s crew and is forced to pass as a girl after a misunderstanding.
McBride is not the first writer to be inspired by Brown’s life, but he is the first to make this chapter in American history uproariously funny.
After Brown first describes his dangerous and unlikely plan to take Harpers Ferry, Onion says he knew that “the Old Man’s cheese had slid off his biscuit.”
There’s a raucous tone throughout, but McBride also makes room for Onion’s more serious struggles to make sense of his identity and to survive. He also conveys a solemn understanding of Brown’s courage and his cause.
Robert Boswell’s new novel, “Tumbledown,” is set in and around a psychiatric rehab and therapy center in Southern California.
The book features a large cast of memorable characters, including James Candler, who is poised to become the head of the clinic.
Candler’s patients, or clients, include Mick and Karly, a sweet-natured schizophrenic and the young woman he loves.
Boswell ruminates on everything, from the pain that suicides leave in their wake to how sunlight travels all the way to Earth, only to get blocked by the leaves on a tree.
This is a book about how life is difficult for everyone — how all of us, in one way or another, are emotionally disturbed.
It mines this truth for laughs as well as heartbreak, as one character wonders, “How could she measure her progress when she didn't know what it felt like to be anyone but herself?”
Find more reviews of new books in the New York Times at nytimes.com/books.