This week, the world's first digital weapon, and an ongoing investigation of men.
Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity by Robert Beachy (Knopf) - History professor Beachy’s purpose, “to historicize the invention of the homosexual and place this sexual identity firmly within the German milieu in which it appeared,” is achieved in this erudite work that traces the emergence of gay identity and sexual orientation to German—specifically Berlin—culture at the turn of the 20th century. Beachy relates the contributions of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, “arguably the first man in modern history to acknowledge openly his sexual attraction to other men”; Richard von Kraft-Ebbing, a leading sexologist in the late 19th century; and Karl Kertbeny, who is credited with coining the neologism Homosexualität (homosexuality) in the mid-19th century. Particular attention is paid to the work of Magnus Hirschfeld, whose “true genius” was “combining almost seamlessly his science and activism.” Beachy also covers the activities of Berlin- based organizations such as the Scientific- Humanitarian Committee, the world’s first homosexual rights organization.
Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend by Christo Brand (St. Martin's) - In June 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived at South Africa's Robben Island Prison, convicted of sabotage and given a life sentence. Fourteen years later, Brand, a relatively apolitical 18-year-old Afrikaner, arrived as a new guard. When, in 1982, Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor Prison, chance placed Brand there as well. This memoir is an account of the bond that formed slowly between the two over the course of three decades. Brand begins by reporting the advice he received from his father, who "would not tolerate [him] disrespecting older people of any colour." By the end, Mandela is the one giving Brand stern but compassionate fatherly advice. Brand's position on the opposite side of the bars from his famous charge gives him a fascinating perspective on an oft-told story.
Ardor by Roberto Calasso, trans. from the Italian by Richard Dixon (FSG) - Calasso follows 2012’s La folie Baudelaire with the seventh installment of an ongoing work, continuing in some measure the investigations of his marvelous Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India (1998). Calasso takes the reader on a tour through the Vedic literature of India, especially the Satapatha Brahmana, an 8th century B.C.E. commentary on the Vedic rites. The desire for the self (atman) to become one with the divine (brahman) is, he points out in this careful, thoughtful, and detailed exploration, at the center of Vedic life. In the Vedas, sacrifice and the rituals that accompany it are the avenue which one travels to become divine: “The sacrifice is a journey—linked to a destruction. A journey from a visible place to an invisible place, and back.” Soma, the intoxicating drink at the center of these rituals, enhances individuals’ ability to achieve immortality and communicate with the gods.
Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson (Harper) - In this lively love letter to archaeologists, former Esquire editor Johnson (This Book is Overdue!) travels the world, getting her hands dirty as she studies archaeologists in their natural habitats. She joins field schools, attends conferences, and chats with the legendary and the up-and-coming practitioners of the discipline and displays infectious enthusiasm for the material. Johnson samples drinks prepared from recipes discovered in ancient tablets, braves bad weather and worse food, visits body farms, and hobnobs with the military all in an effort to examine and explore every aspect of archaeologist’s life. Her experiences are eye-opening and engaging.
Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation by Laura Kipnis (Metropolitan) - Kipnis’s gifts are on full display in this irresistible collection of essays, in which she weaves together complex and penetrating insights about gender into provocative treatises. Though the book is putatively about men, Northwestern University professor Kipnis (Against Love) takes an appreciably unique angle on her subjects. Each chapter, save one, is devoted to an archetype of masculinity. Kipnis’s arguments are never predictable: for example, her chapter on “juicers,” ostensibly about steroid-abusing male athletes, evolves into a profound soliloquy about writing, plagiarism, and labor markets. Her examination of modern manhood sheds as much light on male vulnerability as it does on male privilege, entitlement, and abuse.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee (Knopf) - Booker Prize–winning novelist Fitzgerald (who died in 2000) once observed, “I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.” In this illuminating biography, critic and scholar Lee (The Novels of Virginia Woolf) shows how Fitzgerald’s characters were drawn not just from real life but from her own life. Fitzgerald was born into a remarkably accomplished and well-connected family of clerics and writers: her father was the editor of the humor magazine Punch; an aunt (Winifred Peck) and uncle (Ronald Knox) were well-known authors; and their circle of acquaintances included Evelyn Waugh, Lytton Strachey, A.A. Milne, and other literary celebrities. “Mops” studied at Oxford and wrote radio plays for the BBC during WWII, but lived mostly in the shadow of her accomplished relatives. She got her chance to shine co-editing the cultural magazine World Review with her husband in 1950, but when the magazine folded in 1953, their lives fell apart and the couple and their three children spent years living in poverty aboard decrepit houseboats in London. Fitzgerald began publishing novels in 1977, at age 61, and Lee does an exceptional job of drawing lines of association between the author’s life and fiction.
Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Neil Rudenstine (FSG) - Rudenstine, former president of Harvard, unpacks what he calls the “greatest single work of lyric poetry,” Shakespeare’s 154 love sonnets. The poems are quoted extensively throughout, as well as given in their entirety. Rudenstine astutely divides the sonnets into “clusters,” so he can explicate separate themes like praise, betrayal, and love. Various rhetorical devices at work in the poems, including wordplay, irony, and hyperbole, also come under consideration. This study touches on multiple interpretations, but is most persuasive on Shakespeare’s use of symbols, such as the sun, and imagery. Rudenstine’s analysis is inspiring and thoughtful, especially when parsing the line, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” or tracing the sonnets’ relationship to the author’s plays.
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (McSweeney's) - Elfrieda’s a concert pianist. When we were kids she would occasionally let me be her page-tuner for the fast pieces that she hadn’t memorized.” This sentence, in the voice of the younger Yolandi, crystallizes the dynamic of the two sisters in Toews’s (Summer of My Amazing Luck) latest novel. While Elfrieda is the genius and the perfectionist, it is the practical, capable Yolandi on whom she depends. Over the course of this tender and bittersweet novel, Elf tours the world while Yoli stays put, has two kids with two different men but stays with neither of the fathers. It is Elf’s debilitating depression and suicidal tendencies that keep the two urgently close as Yoli, for decades, does everything she can to help Elf ward off her psychological problems.
Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon by Kim Zettner (Crown) - Cyberwarfare catapulted from science fiction into reality in 2010, when a previously unknown military-grade computer virus attacked centrifuges in Iran that were allegedly being used to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs. Zetter (Simple Kabbalah), a senior writer for Wired magazine, details how a series of clues led a small but intrepid group of computer security specialists from around the world to discover Stuxnet, the world’s first “zero-day exploit,” a virus without a patch. The origins of the virus were eventually traced to the U.S. and Israel, and though the allies frustrated Iran’s efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon, unleashing the virus was “remarkably reckless,” Zetter argues. Stuxnet and its successors have compromised trusted components of the international computer world, like digital certificates and security updates, and have drawn unwelcome attention to vulnerable U.S. energy, water, and transportation infrastructures.