The Daily Beast Recommends
This week: a coffeehouse satire, a football team that united a community, a not-so-short history of democracy, and the dark underworld of Chinatown.
After the Fire, a Still Small Voiceby Evie Wyld
The effect of war across generations of Australian veterans.
We’ve read articles about post-traumatic stress disorder and the aftermath of war, but here’s a debut novel on the trickle-down effects of war over several generations. Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is about the experiences of Australian veterans. “Even if you haven’t gone to war, even if your grandfather or your great-grandfather was in a war, stuff trickles down in your family and everyone’s affected,” Wyld has said. The book follows Frank and Leon, two men separated by 50 years. Frank lives in an abandoned shack and spends his time on the docks, fishing alone, until his neighbors intervene. Leon, who lived in Sydney in the 1950s, became similarly isolated after returning from Vietnam. Though Frank and Leon lead completely different lives—and are separated by a half-century—they are linked by isolation. According to Wyld, the book “is about men and the things they can’t talk about.”
The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe
Following Chinese immigrants from Fujian Province to New York City.
It’s the story of a “ghetto within a ghetto”: The Snakehead, Patrick Radden Keefe’s well-researched new book, follows immigrants from China’s Fujian Province to New York's Chinatown. Although he tells the story through an intricate web of characters, Snakehead is both a chronicle of crime and an anthropological account of the Fujianese people. To execute the project, Keefe navigated through difficult language barriers, trade routes, and a maze of immigration politics. One memorable character is Sister Ping, an anonymous businesswoman who works in Chinatown. When Ping is approached by an immigration official, she tells him matter-of-factly: “You don’t have the time to get me. Or the resources.” And she was right. Keefe also focuses the Golden Venture, a boat carrying illegal immigrants that wrecked off the East Coast in 1993. According to The New York Times, “Although Mr. Keefe does an admirable job of navigating the minutiae of his story, the larger-scale events and historical currents are what stand out.”
The tale of an extraordinary high-school football team and the community it unites.
At the geographical and philosophical center of Middle America sits Smith Center, Kansas, a tiny town where life revolves around the phenomenal high-school football team. It has won 67 games in a row, the longest high-school winning streak in history, but is entering turbulent times. Joe Drape, a Kansas City native and award-winning sportswriter for The New York Times, writes engagingly of the team in his new book, Our Boys. He describes the community as the boys embark on a quest for their fifth-consecutive title in the fall of 2008. The team is sustained not by special training or corporate money but by community spirit, abstinence, virginity, and the slightly trite philosophy of their beloved coach, Roger Barta: “Respect each other, then learn to love each other and together we are champions.” Publishers Weekly says the book “flawlessly paints a picture of how Smith Center achieves perfection year after year, [but] more importantly, delves into the individual stories on the team.”
Ground Up by Michael Idov
A satiric tale of love, idealism, and strong coffee.
In Michael Idov’s debut novel, Ground Up, an idealistic young couple is seduced by the image of the Viennese coffeehouse: a sun-drenched room, witty conversation, and the sound of clinking porcelain cups. They’re eager to re-create it on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and found Café Kolschitzky, a place loosely based on Idov’s own experience running Café Trotsky in New York. Ground Up focuses on their idealistic journey, as a Starbucks clone opens across the street and they cope with every form of coffeehouse disaster. As the café fails, their relationship fractures along with it. Idov, a staff writer at New York magazine, is “sagely wry” in this book, a portrait of New York City and a lesson on young idealism all in one. According to the Los Angeles Times, Ground Up “couldn’t feel more timely. The strength of Idov’s satire is its explosion of the money-isn’t-everything myth that keeps so many artistic types tethered to their dreams.”
The Life and Death of Democracyby John Keane
An ambitious book turns the history of democracy on its head.
In the wake of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda”—which attempted to promote democracy across the globe—now is a good time to re-examine what Winston Churchill called “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” In The Life and Death of Democracy, John Keane sets out to debunk many of the romantic notions we have about democracy—starting with where it was born. Although we typically think of democracy as originating in Athens, precursors can be found in Mesopotamia 2,000 years earlier, Keane writes. What the Athenians shared with the current global leaders of democracy are “its self-importance, its sense of destiny,” The Guardian notes in a review. Keane highlights versions of democracy that existed during the Dark Ages, as well as its less-than-ideal incarnations in 19th-century Latin America. The book declares that today we are living in a “monitory democracy,” in which people keep an eye on their leaders with a litany of tools, including the Internet. But Keane may take the concept of liberalism a little too literally: The Life and Death of Democracy spans 992 pages.