This week, a "word flu" virus, new Lydia Davis, and fun with cryogenics.
Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World by Amir Alexander (FSG/Scientific American) - UCLA historian and mathematician Alexander (Geometrical Landscapes) gives readers insight into a real-world Da Vinci Code–like intrigue with this look at the history of a simple, yet pivotal, mathematical concept. According to classic geometry, a line is made of a string of points, or “indivisibles,” which cannot be broken down into anything smaller. But if that’s so, how many indivisibles are in a line, and how big are they? And what happens when you divide the line into smaller segments? It seemed that indivisibles weren’t really indivisible at all, a “deeply troubling” idea to the medieval Church and its adherents, who demanded a rigidly unchanging cosmos with no surprises.
Updike by Adam Begley (Harper) - This deferential but insightful biography takes its place among the go-to sources on the life of the Pennsylvania-born “poet laureate of American middleness,” who died in 2009. Without always matching the laborious detail of Jack De Bellis’s John Updike’s Early Years (2013), this comprehensive account from literary critic Begley draws on deep research and interviews with the author and his circle to chart his early influences—in particular his ambitious mother, Linda—and rigorously explore the heavily autobiographical dimensions of his fiction and poetry.
Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis (FSG) - With her fifth collection, Davis continues to hone her subtle and distinctive brand of storytelling. These poems, vignettes, thoughts, observations, and stories defy clear categorization; each one is an independent whole, but read together they strike a fine rhythm. Davis circles the same central point in each entry: her characters examine the world with a detached, self-contained logic that seems to represent the process of writing itself. Some of the best pieces in the collection are the shortest, like “Brief Incident in Short a, Long a, and Schwa,” which ends: “Ant backtracks fast—straight at cat. Cat, alarmed, backs away. Man, standing, staring, laughs. Ant changes path again. Cat, calm again, watches again.” Davis’s bulletproof prose sends each story shooting off the page.
Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve) - Based on a notebook she started when she was 14 after a series of puzzling “dissociative” episodes that verged on the mystical, Ehrenreich, best-known for her polemics on issues of social justice (Bright-Eyed; Bait and Switch), fashions an intensely engrossing study of her early quest for “cosmic knowledge.” As a child of an upwardly mobile scientist father who had started as a copper miner in Butte, Mont., and a resentful mother of thwarted ambitions, both of whom were fierce atheists sliding into alcoholism by the mid-1950s, Ehrenreich moved constantly, eventually landing briefly in Lowell, Mass., where her first mystical experience occurred, then to Los Angeles. Smart in math and science, non-believing and obedient to her father’s instruction to ask always why, Ehrenreich was resolved not to turn out like her mother, yet she could not quite be the scientist of her father’s dreams because she was a girl.
The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon (Doubleday) - Graedon's spectacular, ambitious debut explores a near-future America that's shifted almost exclusively to smart technologies, where print is only a nostalgia, and nostalgia is only an archaism. But while everyone carries "Memes," devices with enough data to negate the need for memory—let alone vocabulary—and can even anticipate wants and needs, Anana Johnson works closely with her anti-Meme father Doug, a famous lexicographer, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language. But when Doug goes missing, what once seemed like a luddite's quaint conspiracy theory takes on new plausibility, and with it, new threat, as the city quickly falls victim to a fast-spreading "word flu" virus.
The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories by Marina Keegan (Scribner) - Journalist and playwright (whose musical Independents was a prize-winning selection in the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival) Keegan’s posthumous collection, with an introduction by Anne Fadiman, serves as a tribute to the author, who died in a car crash in 2012, five days after graduating Yale University. The book illuminates the optimism and neurosis felt by new grads everywhere: “The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young.” Though the collection features more fiction than non-, the author’s voice is similar in both. Her essays hide musings about her life and relationships under innocuous subjects: her mother’s over-protectiveness about Keegan’s celiac disease, for example, leads Keegan to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a parent.
In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen (Riverhead) - Early in this novel by Matthiessen (Shadow Country), which follows a meditative retreat at Auschwitz, main character Clements Olin thinks, “Nobody knows whom to be angry with in such a place.” Indeed, the story centers on the search for understanding on the part of the retreaters, and their attempt to spiritually confront the evil that occurred at the site. What makes Matthiessen’s latest stand out from the scores of other Holocaust books is that Olin, a non-Jewish academic of Polish descent, is aware of the vast Holocaust literature (“You got some new angle on mass murder, maybe, that ain’t been written up yet in maybe ten thousand fucking books?” someone asks him)—and feels self-doubt to the point of defeat about what he’s doing in Auschwitz in the first place.
The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling (Overlook) - Combining the delicacy of an old Chinese landscape painting with the brutality of Chinese history, Spurling’s novel follows the wanderings of real-life painter/sometime bureaucrat Wang Meng during the last years of Mongol rule through the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. Wrongfully imprisoned during his old age by the regime he helped establish, Wang, as Spurling imagines him, records his life story both in first person and in third, in keeping with his observant, yet personal, painting style. The narrative resounds with the vivid detail and the ever-changing tides of war and politics, art and nature.
Dreams of Gods & Monsters by Laini Taylor (Little, Brown) - In the final book of the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy, Taylor revives the strong interweaving of reality and fantasy that gave the first story such cross-genre appeal. When a seraphim army with a terrifying message arrives in Rome, fittingly taking up residence at the Vatican, humanity is brought face to face with the chimaera and seraphim universes.
What Would Lynne Tillman Do? Essays by Lynne Tillman (Red Lemonade) - “The art of underexplanation” characterizes this eclectic assortment of essays, anecdotes, interviews, reviews, and vignettes from novelist and critic Tillman (Someday This Will Be Funny). In a flexible, wise, and wryly funny voice, she studies subjects as varied as President Obama, art, language, literature, film, and music (from Chet Baker to the Rolling Stones). Consciousness, time, and desire, as well as problems of authenticity, ideology, and taste emerge as leitmotifs, though Tillman’s real subject is the making of art. This compulsively readable collection is like eavesdropping on the polished chatter of an exceptionally clever and well-read party guest, one who understands that elaboration is the antithesis of wit.
Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA by E.G. Vallianatos, with McKay Jenkins (Bloomsbury) - Vallianatos, after a 25-year stint at the Environmental Protection Agency, pulls back the curtain on the watchdog agency’s failure to guard public safety and monitor land use due to steady erosion of its enforcement practices. With environmental journalist Jenkins he blasts the EPA’s ineptitude since its 1970 inception, intensely pressured as it is by politicians and corporations to approve the use of synthetic chemicals without proper testing—“biologic death bombs” in the air, water, and in our bodies. The EPA, through its Congressional mandate, enforces more than a dozen environmental laws, yet it has approved hundreds of pesticides that have been used unnecessarily, excessively, or which have been outright abused, the book contends.
The Other Black List: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s by Mary Helen Washington (Columbia Univ.) - In this groundbreaking book, University of Maryland literature professor Washington uncovers and recovers the “minimized, or omitted... influence of the Communist Party and the Left” in African-American arts and letters during the 1950s. FBI informants, she observes, were often “far more enterprising and thorough than most literary historians,” thus enabling Washington to retrieve details of “Black-Left history” absent from current anthologies. Focusing on six artists—novelist Lloyd L. Brown, graphic artist Charles White, playwright Alice Childress, poet and novelist Gwendolyn Brooks, novelist Frank London Brown, and novelist Julian Mayfield—her work aims to recast who we read and transform how we read.
Noggin by John Corey Whaley (S&S/Atheneum) - Like baseball great Ted Williams, Travis Coates has his head surgically removed and cryogenically frozen after he dies (of leukemia at age 16). Unlike Williams, Travis is a fictional character, and five years after his death, technological advances allow doctors to attach his head to a donor body that’s taller and more muscular than the original. Whaley’s second novel (following his Printz-winning Where Things Come Back) is far more concerned with matters of the heart than with how head reattachment surgery would work. Travis awakens to restart where he left off—sophomore year—but everyone he knew has moved on.