It’s Oscar season! And while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences makes no bones about its foremost love being for the cinematic arts, each year’s Oscar nods clearly indicate how deeply beholden the film business is to the business of books. To illustrate the point, we’ve rounded up our reviews of the books adapted into, or inspiring, this year’s Academy Award–nominated films, from Oppenheimer and Nyad to American Fiction and The Boy and the Heron.

Editor’s Note: These historical reviews, including those sourced from our digital archive, are presented in the varying editorial styles in which they originally appeared over the past five decades in Publishers Weekly.

American Prometheus: The Triump and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Oppenheimer, Best Picture)

By Kai Bird

Though many recognize Oppenheimer (1904–1967) as the father of the atomic bomb, few are as familiar with his career before and after Los Alamos. Sherwin (A World Destroyed ) has spent 25 years researching every facet of Oppenheimer’s life, from his childhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and his prewar years as a Berkeley physicist to his public humiliation when he was branded a security risk at the height of anticommunist hysteria in 1954. Teaming up with Bird, an acclaimed Cold War historian (The Color of Truth ), Sherwin examines the evidence surrounding Oppenheimer’s “hazy and vague” connections to the Communist Party in the 1930s—loose interactions consistent with the activities of contemporary progressives. But those politics, in combination with Oppenheimer’s abrasive personality, were enough for conservatives, from fellow scientist Edward Teller to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, to work at destroying Oppenheimer’s postwar reputation and prevent him from swaying public opinion against the development of a hydrogen bomb. Bird and Sherwin identify Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss as the ringleader of a “conspiracy” that culminated in a security clearance hearing designed as a “show trial.” Strauss’s tactics included illegal wiretaps of Oppenheimer’s attorney; those transcripts and other government documents are invaluable in debunking the charges against Oppenheimer. The political drama is enhanced by the close attention to Oppenheimer’s personal life, and Bird and Sherwin do not conceal their occasional frustration with his arrogant stonewalling and panicky blunders, even as they shed light on the psychological roots for those failures, restoring human complexity to a man who had been both elevated and demonized. 32 pages of photos not seen by PW. (Apr. 10)

Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer (Poor Things, Best Picture)

By Alasdair Gray

Winner of the 1992 Whitbread Prize, Scottish writer Gray’s ( Something Leather ) black comedy uses a science-fiction-like premise to satirize Victorian morals. Ostensibly the memoirs of late-19th-century Glasgow physician Archibald McCandless, the narrative follows the bizarre life of oversexed, volatile Bella Baxter, an emancipated woman and a female Frankenstein. Bella is not her real name; as Victorian Blessington, she drowned herself to escape her abusive husband, but a surgeon removed the brain from the fetus she was carrying and placed it in her skull, resucitating her. The revived Bella has the mental age of a child. Engaged to marry McCandless, she chloroforms him and runs off with a shady lawyer who takes her on a whirlwind adventure, hopping from Alexandria to Odessa to a Parisian brothel. As her brain matures, Bella develops a social conscience, but her rescheduled nuptials to Archie are cut short when she is recognized as Victoria by her lawful husband, Gen. Sir Aubrey Blessington. In an epilogue dated 1914, cranky idealist Victoria McCandless, M.D., a suffragette, Fabian socialist, pacifist and advocate of birthing stools, pokes holes in her late husband Archie’s narrative. Illustrated with Gray’s suitably macabre drawings, this work of inspired lunacy effectively skewers class snobbery, British imperialism, prudishness and the tenets of received wisdom. Author tour. (Mar.)

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Killers of the Flower Moon, Best Picture)

By David Grann

New Yorker staff writer Grann (The Lost City of Z) burnishes his reputation as a brilliant storyteller in this gripping true-crime narrative, which revisits a baffling and frightening—and relatively unknown—spree of murders occurring mostly in Oklahoma during the 1920s. From 1921 to 1926, at least two dozen people were murdered by a killer or killers apparently targeting members of the Osage Indian Nation, who at the time were considered “the wealthiest people per capita in the world” thanks to the discovery of oil beneath their lands. The violent campaign of terror is believed to have begun with the 1921 disappearance of two Osage Indians, Charles Whitehorn and Anna Brown, and the discovery of their corpses soon afterwards, followed by many other murders in the next five years. The outcry over the killings led to the involvement in 1925 of an “obscure” branch of the Justice Department, J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation, which eventually charged some surprising figures with the murders. Grann demonstrates how the Osage Murders inquiry helped Hoover to make the case for a “national, more professional, scientifically skilled” police force. Grann’s own dogged detective work reveals another layer to the case that Hoover’s men had never exposed. Agents: Kathy Robbins and David Halpern, Robbins Office. (Apr.)

Erasure (American Fiction, Best Picture)

By Percival L. Everett

Everett’s (Glyph; Frenzy; etc.) latest is an over-the-top masterpiece about an African-American writer who “overcomes” his intellectual tendency to “write white” and ends up penning a parody of ghetto fiction that becomes a huge commercial and literary success. Thelonius “Monk” Ellison is an erudite, accomplished but seldom-read author who insists on writing obscure literary papers rather than the so-called “ghetto prose” that would make him a commercial success. He finally succumbs to temptation after seeing the Oberlin-educated author of We’s Lives in da Ghetto during her appearance on a talk show, firing back with a parody called My Pafology, which he submits to his startled agent under the gangsta pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh. Ellison quickly finds himself with a six-figure advance from a major house, a multimillion-dollar offer for the movie rights and a monster bestseller on his hands. The money helps with a family crisis, allowing Ellison to care for his widowed mother as she drifts into the fog of Alzheimer’s, but it doesn’t ease the pain after his sister, a physician, is shot by right-wing fanatics for performing abortions. The dark side of wealth surfaces when both the movie mogul and talk-show host demand to meet the nonexistent Leigh, forcing Ellison to don a disguise and invent a sullen, enigmatic character to meet the demands of the market. The final indignity occurs when Ellison becomes a judge for a major book award and My Pafology (title changed to Fuck) gets nominated, forcing the author to come to terms with his perverse literary joke. Percival’s talent is multifaceted, sparked by a satiric brilliance that could place him alongside Wright and Ellison as he skewers the conventions of racial and political correctness. (Sept. 21)

Forecast: Everett has been well-reviewed before, but his latest far surpasses his previous efforts. Passionate word of mouth (of which there should be plenty), rave reviews (ditto) and the startling cover (a young, smiling black boy holding a toy gun to his head) could help turn this into a genuine publishing event.

The Zone of Interest (The Zone of Interest, Best Picture)

By Martin Amis

An absolute soul-crusher of a book, the brilliant latest from Amis (Lionel Asbo: State of England) is an astoundingly bleak love story, as it were, set in a German concentration camp, which Thomsen, one of the book’s three narrators, refers to as Kat Zet. Thomsen, the nephew of Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, has a vague role as a liaison at Buna Werke, where the Germans are attempting to synthesize oil for the war effort using slave labor. He sets his sights on Hannah Doll, wife of camp commandant Paul, who is the second of three narrators as well as a drunk whose position is under threat. As Thomsen gets closer with Hannah, both of them, horrified at what’s going on, conspire to undermine Paul—Hannah at home and Thomsen around the camp. Paul, meanwhile, follows up his suspicions about his wife and Thomsen by involving Szmul, the book’s third narrator and a Jew who disposes of the corpses in the gas chamber, in a revenge plot. Amis took on the Holocaust obliquely in Time’s Arrow. Here he goes at it straight, and the result is devastating. (Sept.)

Find a Way: One Wild and Precious Life (Nyad, Best Actress)

By Diana Nyad

At 64, celebrated long-distance swimmer Nyad accomplished a feat that had eluded her at 28—making the first solo swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. While Cuba to the Keys is 94 miles for the proverbial crow, Nyad lacked wings and ultimately covered 110 miles through the powerful Gulf current, navigating hazards that included toxic jellyfish and peckish sharks, as well as severe nausea and dehydration. As Nyad narrates the financial and physical demands of her odyssey, which she undertook after a three-decade break from swimming, she also reviews her career as a television journalist and talk show host. Nyad sees her competitive drive as fueled by enduring anger over her sexual abuse as a child, and the ocean ultimately provides her with a means of transcendence. The strength of Nyad’s memoir is her recounting of the journey: gym training and the rhythms of swimming, songs that help her time strokes, analysis of weather and water, sketches of her team members, and the delicate shuffle between two countries still fighting the Cold War. Nyad has a vibrant, informal voice and her anecdotes are intrinsically interesting. However, she rushes through events unrelated to her quest, while issues like her history of abuse and failed romances feel underexplored given her statements on how much they’ve influenced her life and work. (Oct.)

The Color Purple (The Color Purple, Best Supporting Actress)

By Alice Walker

Alice Walker’s first novel since Meridian is a stunning, brilliantly conceived book about two black Southern women, sisters who are separated at adolescence and for the next 30 years never forsake their devotion to each other. Their stories are principally told in the letters of the elder sister, Celie. Written in a rich dialogue, though barely literate, they are addressed to God because Celie doesn’t know where her sister Nettie is. In these letters, Celie recounts her pained life as part of the lowest caste in society—a poor, unattractive, uneducated, Southern black woman. Raped by a man she thinks is her father, then robbed of her two children, Celie is later given to a man as a wife. The love in Celie’s life is Nettie who has gone to Africa with the black missionary couple who have unknowingly adopted Celie’s children. Nettie’s letters to Celie are kept by Celie’s husband. But Celie finds another love in an extraordinary woman, Shug Avery, a singer who comes to live with Celie’s husband. Through Shug, Celie begins to feel loved and valued for the first time in her life. Spanning some 30 years, this is a saga filled with joy and pain, humor and bitterness, and an array of characters who live, breathe, and illuminate the world of these black women.

Editor’s Note: This review was published in the May 14, 1982 issue of Publishers Weekly.

How Do You Live? (The Boy and the Heron, Best Animated Feature Film)

By Genzaburoˉ Yoshino, translated from the Japanese by Bruno Navasky

First published in 1937, this deeply thoughtful Japanese classic—filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite childhood book—is offered in its first English translation via Navasky’s quiet, carefully measured prose. Born and raised in Tokyo, 15-year-old Honda Jun’ichi, known as Copper and small for his age, “can be a bit too mischievous.” When his bank director father passed away around two years ago, Copper and his mother downsized and moved to a modest suburban home, now frequently visited by Copper’s maternal uncle, with whom he is “terribly close.” Interspersed with prosaic recollections of a year of Copper’s school days, interpersonal dramas, and developing friendships, entries from Uncle’s Notebook relay affirmative messages to Copper, covering topics such as science, philosophy, history, and poverty. What results is a gentle tale of self-discovery and reflection, and a compassionate guidebook on integrity punctuated by rich sensory details. If the book unfurls a bit slowly, Yoshino’s timeless lessons (“You must live your life like a true human being and feel just what you feel”), will resonate with sensitive readers young and old. Front matter includes a foreword by Neil Gaiman; back matter includes a note from the translator. Ages 10–14. (Oct.)

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More (The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Best Live-Action Short Film)

By Roald Dahl

Few modern writers have attracted such an appreciative audience among adults and children as Dahl. His Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been a hit with boys and girls for years. They will welcome the short stories in his latest collection, a book which includes the author’s factual account of how he became an author and his first story, “A Piece of Cake.” The latter is an astonishingly convincing fiction describing the hallucinations of a British flyer, shot down during World War II. “The Hitchhiker” tells the funny talke of a motorist who picks up a fellow who turns out to be an adroit pickpocket, stealing everything removable from the driver without giving himself away but paying for his ride in a hilarious way. All the tales are entrancing inventions.

Editor’s Note: This review was published in the October 31, 1977 issue of Publishers Weekly.

Nimona (Nimona, Best Animated Feature Film)

By Noelle Stevenson

In Stevenson’s funny, smart, and provocative graphic novel (which originated as a webcomic), a gentlemanly clash between rivals is disrupted when an energetic shapeshifter raises the stakes with her predilection for violence. Set in a medieval-meets-modern fantasy kingdom, the story begins when Nimona offers her services to Lord Ballister Blackheart, banished evil genius and friend-turned-nemesis of Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, champion of the powerful Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. Through Nimona’s influence, Ballister’s tepid schemes graduate into deadly and destructive plots, forcing the Institution to respond with drastic measures that reveal its own nefarious leanings. Initially poking fun at hero and villain stereotypes (“You can’t just go around murdering people. There are rules, Nimona,” Ballister tells the pierced, pink-haired shapeshifter after she suggests a bloody public execution of the king), Stevenson’s tale presents a nuanced view of morality while offering thoughtful comment on friendship and individuality. Sharp visuals, a nifty amalgam of fantasy and science fiction elements, and relationships drawn with complexity, wit, and depth create a world worth returning to again and again. Ages 13–up. Agent: Charlie Olsen, Inkwell Management. (May)

Robot Dreams (Robot Dreams, Best Animated Feature Film)

By Sara Varon

Robots, ducks, melting snowmen and other mute creatures, all rendered in sweet and simple drawings, go through some very big, very human ordeals in Varon’s (Chicken and Cat ) elegiac and lovely graphic novel about friendship. Dog buys a build-your-own-robot kit and assembles a new best friend for himself. But a day at the beach leaves Robot’s joints rusted and immobile, and Dog is obliged to abandon him there. While Dog spends the next year trying to fill the hole in his life left by Robot—and assuage his guilt—Robot lies inert on the beach, dreaming of rescue and escape. Dog’s episodic stories are particularly poignant in the way they mirror the human tendency to “try things out” in the hopes of meeting some emotional need; Robot is an avatar for all children who wonder why they aren’t receiving the love they think they deserve. In a conclusion both powerful and original, Robot ends up reworked into a radio by a raccoon grateful for the music, and forgives Dog, even if Dog doesn’t realize it; for once characters don’t have to wind up back together to find happiness. Tender, funny and wise. Ages 8-up. (Aug.)

This article was written by PW Staff | Feb 01, 2024 | READ IT HERE