Scribner, 2023, $28.99
Cats have nine lives. They are superior beings—obviously. In The Curator, upon death, you are picked up by the nape of your neck by a giant Mother Cat, who promises a warm nest and an endless supply of milk. Instead of hearing "have a good day," you'd get, "I hope a cat smiles upon you." This is just one example of a rich, feline-centric otherworld in Owen King's latest novel, a substantial work of supernatural fiction which is based just enough in reality to coax plausibility.
The story's location is vague—"unmappable"—although it is set on the river Fair, with real estate broker-worthy named neighborhoods of No Fair and So Fair, plus the Lees. Apparently, it was founded by people of Nordic descent (subsequently, King makes no references to ethnicity), most significantly a stonecutter who built a castle kept empty in tribute to God, for which he was rewarded with eternal life.
Thus the framework is laid for centuries-long lives, passage into a zombie state aboard a Morgue Ship, souls shifting between human vessels and as light/fuel for other more fortunate souls. In the aftermath of the overthrow of the crown and its cronies, a band of upstarts assume positions of power, although the reason for the coup remains murky. We follow a panoply of characters, primarily Dora (or "D"). Once a cleaner, as she takes over as curator of the National Museum of the Worker, full of wax statues of farriers, drovers, brewers. It sits next to the torched Society for Psykical Research, where Dora's brother Ambrose died; the walls between the two buildings seem to be a portal for those passing between states of being.
Dora's paramour, former university student Robert Barnes, becomes a lieutenant in post-coup Volunteer Civil Defense, in essence by donning a green armband. Throughout the book, the assumption of new roles and jobs by merely changing costumes or other external signifiers parallels current sociopolitical trends—transforming a vehicle into a moving billboard proclaiming one's loyalty by planting banners, or performatively donning paramilitary garb. Ike, who also has romantic ideas about Dora, woos her by obtaining items she needs to flesh out the museum's displays—tools, costume embellishments, or a bag of glass eyeballs.
There's a lot to process in The Curator—many givens that warp reality. People are induced, robot-like, into killing themselves. Their souls then enter glass globes and burn to provide light and rejuvenate others. Joven, in life a ceramicist and in afterlife the captain of the Morgue Ship, says: "First you disembark, then you find yourself a body and climb into it." The land's sharpshooting assassins are elderly twins, Edna and Bertha Pinter, who sport sea foam green gowns and pearl-handled pistols. New wax figures mysteriously appear, seemingly by osmosis from Psykical, in the Museum of the Worker; one bears a leather handbag with Gucci on it, which Dora takes to be the name of its owner.
The 300-year-old playwright Aloysius Lumm has amassed a fistful of business cards with varying lofty titles, including his current (President, Society for Psykical Research), and more wide-ranging ones (Choreographer Emeritus, The Madame Curtiz Academy of Dance and the Human Shape). Is he a mastermind behind the whole enterprise striving for eternal life and power, before succumbing to a herd of hangry cats? The spinner of a plan to mark souls ripe for the harvesting with simple red triangles? Or simply another cog in the machine?
Despite the fatigue of revolution and a constantly lurking apocalyptic scenario, the tone of the novel is upbeat in the manner of a fairy tale. Dora, despite wearing a bonnet, can cuss like a sailor. Even descriptions of grotesques and Frankensteined zombies have a frank simplicity to them. In a broader sense, the idea that your soul can continue to live in another body (or one made up of different parts), or provide energy for another, is somehow redemptive. The novel flexes the imagination's muscles, but it resonates with today's current events. The pointlessness and inevitability of war, the randomness of death but with the potential for reincarnation. The performative nature of power, and obtaining it for its own sake. Always, the omnipotence of cats.
Earlier, I tagged The Curator as supernatural fiction, but it resists genre definition, tapping horror, fantasy, and historical notes. I thought of Stephen King's work a few chapters in—the facile way he weaves strands of realism with overtly crazy stuff that you just accept. Fie on me, but it wasn't until after I finished the book that I learned that Owen is Stephen King's son, and they have collaborated on books and other projects. While it will be a Herculean task to match his father's output in terms of breadth and popularity, if anyone can rightly carry the torch, look to Owen. May a cat smile upon him.
Indian Flavor Every DayMaya Kaimal
Clarkson Potter, 2023, $28
"Indian food has a reputation for being intimidating," writes Maya Kaimal in the introduction for her new cookbook, Indian Flavor Every Day. But as the award-winning author and founder of Rhinebeck-based Maya Kaimal Foods soon reveals, mastering just a few simple, time-tested techniques from the Indian culinary tradition will have you adding warming masalas and fragrant tarkas—whole spices bloomed in oil—to everything from salads to soups, roasted meats, and even sweets. Taken from Kaimal's own Western mealtime routines, the 80 accessible recipes, alongside practical techniques and ingredient swaps, are equal parts fun and ambitious, celebrating Indian flavor in all its complexity and ease.
Pattern and Flow: A Golden Age of American Decorated Paper, 1960s to 2000sMindell Dubansky
Yale University Press, 2023, $65
Tivoli resident and longtime museum librarian for preservation at the Thomas J. Watson Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mindell Dubansky has written the first expansive survey of American decorated paper arts beginning in the 1960s, a period when the field entered new heights of artistry and commercial success. This lavish and immersive coffee table book includes 280 vivid illustrations of intricate patterns and designs. An accompanying exhibition at the Grolier Club in Manhattan, featuring 150 objects from the Met's Thomas J. Watson Library collection, is on display through April 8.
The Story of the SaxophoneLesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome
Holiday House, 2023, $27
Kids will love The Story of the Saxophone as its authors Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome creatively trace the true beginnings of the saxophone from Europe and Mexico to its landing in New Orleans. James, a Coretta Scott King Honoree, and Lesa, an NAACP Image Award winner, have partnered to tell the story of Joseph-Antoine Adolphe Sax, a young man who invented the instrument in Belgium in 1840. The book includes beautiful artwork from the Rhinebeck team and a poster of iconic jazz musicians inside the book jacket to inspire young readers to listen to more jazz.
Jamie MacGillivray: The Renegade's JourneyJohn Sayles
Melville House, 2023, $32
Novelist, screenwriter, actor, and celebrated director John Sayles (Brother from Another Planet), a resident of Western Connecticut, has written another historical epic, this time following a pair of young Scots from the Battle of Culloden in 1746 to Colonial America. Pawns in the deadly game of history game where the rules keep changing, Jamie and Jenny continue to cross paths with each other, as well as some of the leading figures of the era—the devious Lord Lovat; a young and ambitious George Washington; and the Lenape chief feared throughout the Ohio Valley, Shingas the Terrible.
The First Two: Real Life WritingMarta Szabo
Tinker Street Press, 2023, $14.99
The author of two previous memoirs, The Guru Looked Good and The Imposters, Marta Szabo has been the facilitator of Woodstock-based Authentic Writing workshops for over 20 years. The First Two is written in the style of the workshops, which prize truth and immediacy. The memoir is composed of short chapters, mini-memoirs, that sketch out brief scenes focusing on two pivotal (and complicated) relationships with men in her life: one with her father, and one with her first love. The effect is cumulative, each reminiscence adding another narrative layer to Szabo's story, with lyrical precision and boundless empathy.
—Lisa Ianucci, Ashleigh Lovelace, Brian K. Mahoney