Welcome to our weekly un-paywalled Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features the untold story of El Chapo, 10 things you should know about time and a retelling of Greek Myths.
For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord by Noah Hurowitz, (Simon & Schuster), £16.15
The journalist Noah Hurowitz first began investigating “the most recognisable brand-name drug lord since Pablo Escobar” in the autumn of 2018, when he was assigned to cover Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s drug trial for the magazine Rolling Stone. Covering this momentous trial meant that Hurowitz got to see first-hand a stream of his former friends, associates, employees, and even tearful ex-lovers and hear them divulge how El Chapo had mercilessly built the most powerful and wealthiest drug-trafficking operation in the world.
El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord is sculpted by these tens of thousands of pages of court documents and trial transcripts as well as dozens of interviews with everyone from former DEA and FBI agents to law enforcement agencies in Mexico and hitmen and former cartel insiders. Hurowitz utilizes his revelatory groundwork to not just investigate the various exploits, murders, and prison escapes of El Chapo but also that of the “bigger picture”, which concerns the perilous drug trade in Mexico and the forces that have enabled its longevity as well as El Chapo’s rise.
From his birth in La Tuna in Sinaloa, Mexico in 1957 to finally being captured by Mexican marines in 2016, Hurowitz takes us on a bumpy journey through the notorious drug kingpin’s life and legacy through an enlightening sociopolitical and geopolitical lens. Consequently, Hurowitz’s debut book goes beyond the “cops-and-robbers” dynamic so frequently depicted by popular culture with certain crime books and hit shows like Narcos. Instead, his absorbing investigation adds nuance to a complex tale of power, corruption and violence that still influences the drug trade, and by default, will continue to influence society with or without a drug kingpin like El Chapo at the helm. “[El Chapo’s] final act is playing out now in ADX Florence, a supermax prison on the windswept high desert plains of Colorado,” writes Hurowitz, “in Mexico, the story goes on without him.”
Time: 10 Things You Should Know by Colin Stuart (Orion Publishing), £9.99
Short on time or patience but not curiosity? Colin Stuart’s Time: Ten Things You Should Know is an essential read for the scientifically inquisitive. Merging history, geology, philosophy and physics into ten bite-sized essays, Stuart leads us through humanity’s evolving relationship with time and space – writing with a concise yet captivating voice.
From our use of carbon dating to determine the ages of biological samples, to the use of the moon and sun to develop our calendar system, the book journeys through key points in history that have defined what came to be known as “time”. Eventually, Stuart turns to the cosmos, keen to unlock the hidden past and future of our universe. Time faces the quandary of quantum physics in sprinklings of sentences – enough to educate the newcomer and revitalise the interest of those more familiar with it.
What’s at the centre of a black hole? Is time travel really possible? Filled to the brim with scientific intrigue, Time is a gripping portrayal of one of physics most perplexing topics. And now the mystery of time, and our ever-changing relationship with it, has become pocket-sized.
Greek Myths: A New Retelling by Charlotte Higgins (Vintage), £20.
The word “text” has its etymology in the Latin word “textus”, meaning a “web” or a “woven fabric, cloth”. Our definition of a literary, written text is not just dependent on the fabric of the story, but a more fundamental sense of woven fabric and intertwined strands. It is this idea of text-as-narrative and text-as-fabric that Charlotte Higgins brings to the fore in her Greek Myths: A New Retelling. The women of the ancient world – Athena, Alcithoë, Philomela, Arachne, Andromache, Helen, Circe, and Penelope – weave their elaborate narrative tapestries, telling the stories of all from Zeus to Oedipus.
This weaving motif is Higgins’ means of removing female characters from the realms of “defenceless virgins, vicious monsters or grotesque old women”. But to argue that ancient literature – where wars are fought for one woman’s honour – marginalises its female characters feels somewhat facetious. Nevertheless, Higgins’ deft language reinvigorates the emotion and horror of the myths. The rape of Persephone is, in Higgins’ hands freshly heart-breaking: there is no trace of a story too well-known to be shocking.
Alongside the myths are Chris Ofili’s beautiful illustrations. Delicate line-drawings are interspersed throughout the book to give it the beauty and intricacy of the tapestries it describes. Higgins’ and Ofili’s creation is masterful: like Penelope unpicking her tapestry each night to stop herself from finishing it, I found myself re-reading and flicking backwards in a bid to delay the book’s end.