Novel of the week
Today Will Be Different
by Maria Semple (Little, Brown, $27)
Maria Semple has emerged in the past four years as “one of America’s best living comic novelists,” said Michael Schaub in NPR.org. Though her followup to Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a mere day in the life of one 49-year-old ex-cartoonist, it “packs in more twists, jokes, and genuinely moving dialogue than anyone has the right to expect.” Eleanor Flood greets the morning with a string of resolutions—to be calmer, to be kinder, to buy local produce—but fate has other plans. Her son feigns a stomachache; she learns her husband hasn’t shown up at his office. And “things only get weirder from there.” Halfway through, Eleanor recalls a painful memory, and the mood shifts, said Elinor Lipman in The Washington Post. Eleanor’s hand-drawn wedding gift to her sister—a 16-page comicbook tribute that’s reproduced within the novel—long ago triggered a stillpainful estrangement. But emotional baggage is part of what makes Eleanor such a “Semple-esque” heroine: She’s “a delightful danger to herself and others, sympathetic, and so very smart.”
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill
by Candice Millard (Doubleday, $30)
“The powerful really are different from you and me,” said Jennifer Senior in The New York Times. In this thrilling new account of a formative adventure in Winston Churchill’s life, the future bulldog of World War II Britain is only 24 and reporting on a war, not fighting one. But the young upstart exhibits a belief in his own greatness that’s as breathtaking as it is endearing, and author Candice Millard makes his experience of the Second Boer War “as involving as a popcorn thriller.” Millard performed a similar service for Teddy Roosevelt in The River of Doubt, and for James Garfield in Destiny of the Republic. Here, her hero is already a failed candidate for Parliament when he heads to South Africa in 1899, hoping to finally win the fame he regards as his destiny.
In this book, Churchill’s celebrated exploits prove “as farcical as they were courageous,” said Lynne Olson in The Washington Post. He arrives in Cape Town with a valet and $4,000 in liquor, and never gets the chance he expected to see Britain crush the Boers. Instead, the former cavalry officer is riding a train two weeks later when a Boer ambush forces him into action: He saves many lives but is captured and imprisoned— and then attempts a foolhardy solo escape. Somehow, he succeeds, and is duly celebrated back home. At the time, the British public “needed a hero as much as Churchill wanted to be one.”
In hindsight, Churchill’s hubris looks more earned than Britain’s, said Roger Lowenstein in The Wall Street Journal. Most British forces had assumed that the Boers— descendants of earlier Dutch and German settlers—would be vanquished quickly. Instead, the 1899–1902 war “exposed the British Empire at its vulnerable apogee— a point that Millard brilliantly conveys.” She has taken “a well-known piece of Churchilliana” and skillfully turned it into a snapshot of Africa on the cusp of a transformative century, said Lucy Lethbridge in the Financial Times. “Her keen awareness of the realities (and surrealities) of war” has yielded a “truly fascinating” book.