Arts & Culture

Output: September/October 2023

Yellowface: A Novel
R. F. Kuang ’27PhD
(William Morrow/HarperCollins, $30)  
When the fabulously successful wunderkind novelist Athena Liu starts choking on pandan pancakes, her friend (and unsuccessful writer) June Hayward uses the Heimlich maneuver, but it fails. June does, however, “save” Athena’s incomplete but stellar manuscript, which she takes home and edits as a tribute to her deceased friend. “I can’t let Athena’s greatest work go to print in its shoddy, first-draft state,” she justifies. “What kind of friend would I be?” Readers will have a ball with that question in Kuang’s page-turner novel—in which June passes the book off as her own.

Charleston: Race, Water, and the Coming Storm
Susan Crawford ’84, ’89JD
(Pegasus Books/Simon & Schuster, $28.95)
“We believe the map of the world’s coastlines is drawn by human occupation,” writes Crawford, a Harvard Law School professor, but “in reality, the map is not drawn by us.” In Charleston, South Carolina, the map is being redrawn by climate change. Crawford gives a portrait of inadequate attempts by city leaders to find two different but effective paths: one to end a history “undergirded by centuries of racism,” and one to save Charlestonians from a rising tide. She provides a lesson in how to plan an equitable—and increasingly inevitable—retreat from rapidly disappearing coastal real estate. “Charleston is a bellwether,” she writes.

Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral
Ben Smith ’99
(Penguin Press, $30)
In 2001, MIT Media Lab grad student Jonah Peretti had a tidal wave of internet views for his screed against Nike’s alleged sweatshop dealings. Jonah’s friend Cameron Marlow bet him he couldn’t replicate the feat. Instead of heading west to Silicon Valley, the young men decamped “in the nascent, experimental new media scene [that] was downtown Manhattan,” where Jonah hatched BuzzFeed. Technology journalist and former BuzzFeed editor Smith follows their quest to turn internet traffic into literal gold and political power.

Unearthed: A Lost Actress, a Forbidden Book, and a Search for Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust 
Meryl Frank ’87MPhil, ’88MPH
(Hachette Books, $29) 
Not long before the author’s Aunt Mollie died in 1997, she promised that Frank would receive a rare book titled Twenty-One and One. She told Frank to keep it safe and pass it on—“but don’t read it.” The “forbidden book” was an account, written largely in Yiddish, of the lives of actors murdered by the Nazis in what is now Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius. One of them was Frank’s cousin Franya Winter, a theater star. Winter’s tragic story sent Frank on a journey to uncover the truth about her relative, and to “keep her spirit alive and honor her memory.”

Facing the Music: A Broadway Memoir
David Loud ’83
(Regan Arts, $29.99)
“Music has consequences,” declared the author’s first piano teacher, Miss Corn. Loud was six years old, but he began an artistic adventure that would make him a legend as a musical director and an actor. His memoir tells an intimate story about how he helped to craft everything: from success stories such as Ragtime and Steel Pier, to Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along (a flop in its first incarnation). There are also splendid portraits of stars the author worked with, such as Chita Rivera and David Hyde Pierce ’81—and a backstory of how Loud has navigated living with Parkinson’s disease in the “Wonderland” of Broadway.

Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16JD and Titus Kaphar ’06MFA
(W. W. Norton, $100)
“Prisons are places where possibility goes to die,” writes Betts, a lawyer and poet who spent more than eight years behind bars. But the legal documents that could send you to jail are, for Betts and Kaphar, a painter, a surprising source of inspiration. Betts mined several court papers, such as one from Montgomery, Alabama, in which his redacted version tells the awful tale of “plaintiffs impoverished jailed by the City unable to pay traffic tickets,” and others that serve as the foundation for haunting poems and drawings featured in this modern version of the traditional “artist’s book.”

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