In the hands of Jeanette Winterson, a storyteller attuned to the silences of women and the poor in fact and in fiction, the Lancashire witch trial of 1612 is an opportunity to explore the mechanisms of greed, morality, power, and sex, and how these elements combined in the most famous of the English witch trials. Investigating the gaps in the historical record and weaving a provocative, startlingly raw story, The Daylight Gate (Grove, $24) moves between worlds of excess and poverty, men’s privileges and women’s secondary status, and the mysterious, eerie realm between this world and the next. Love, power plays, and miscalculated judgments force the strong-willed and independent Alice Nutter to defend her values at the risk of losing her life, and her choices endanger both the man and the woman she loves. Winterson’s dark and compelling novel elicits shivers—for the horrifying events in its pages and for the beauty of her simple, elegant prose.
A friend once told me that cats don’t have owners, they have staff. Some of the more literary and artistic feline-staffers present their work in The Big New Yorker Book of Cats (Random House, $40), a collection of more than a hundred pieces drawn from throughout the magazine’s history. Susan Sheehan’s “Bookstore Cat” touches on a small thing P&P lacks: a furry mascot. Cat-tastic fictions by Roald Dahl and T.C. Boyle make an appearance, but the best story is J.F. Powers’s “Death of a Favorite,” about a Faustian cat with more than nine lives. Burkhard Bilger’s “The Last Meow” is a touching profile on the lengths humans will go to for their pets, and includes an addendum that made me cry (as my cats looked on with cool disdain). Peppered with cat-inspired poetry, including selections by Pulitzer Prize-winners Paul Muldoon and Franz Wright and former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, and classic cat cartoons and cover illustrations, this gift is ideal for reading (you) and reclining upon (your cats).
A violent, bloody epic brimming with endless deaths, The Iliad catalogues the brutality of war; but it is two specific deaths that propel the final chapters of the saga. When the Greek hero Achilles' beloved companion, Patroclus is murdered by the Trojan hero Hector, Achilles' trenchant refusal to fight explodes into hateful rage—not only does he kill Hector, he drags the body behind his chariot and refuses to give it up to the kingdom of Troy for proper burial. David Malouf's Ransom settles into this ancient narrative at this point of grief and anguish—Achilles mourning Patroclus, King Priam mourning his son—and moves beautifully around and within what we know of the characters to illuminate the untold: how did King Priam, himself a survivor of a harsh war, come to command a kingdom locked in a ten-year battle? How did a king convince his queen and sons to let him travel to the heart of the Greek camp, unarmed and with only a commoner to guide him? And how did the king, wounded with grief for his lost son, come to sit at supper with his son's murderer and defiler, sleep under his protection, and return safely home? Malouf's rich novel brings together two men for a moving meditation on grief, loss, and how the two emotions bind us.