This week, Jon Ronson's fascinating exploration of shaming, Pulitzer-winner Tracy K. Smith's wonderful memoir, and how to clone a mammoth.
The Strangler Vine by M J Carter (Putnam) - Colonial India in 1837 comes alive in Carter’s superior fiction debut. Col. Patrick Buchanan, the chief military secretary of the Honorable East India Company in Calcutta, directs a former company officer, the Sherlock Holmes–like Jeremiah Blake, to search for Xavier Mountstuart, the author of popular romance fiction rumored to be based on fact, who disappeared after visiting the headquarters of the company’s thuggee department. The officer who runs this department is determined to rid the country of the threat from the murderous thuggee gangs. William Avery, a callow young company officer, is to accompany Blake. Buchanan warns Avery that while success will gain him whatever posting he desires, failure will doom him to end his days in the “most remote malarial hole in Bengal.”
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum (Picador) - Contrary to the title, none of the 16 essays in this absorbing collection reflect particularly selfish or shallow motivations for childlessness. As Daum points out in her introduction, she and the other writers surveyed here “are neither hedonists nor ascetics,” nor “do we hate children.” Some entries are heart-wrenching—especially Elliott Holt’s “Just an Aunt”—while others are downright hilarious. Geoff Dyer announces that he’s “had only two ambitions in life: to put on weight (it’s not going to happen) and never to have children (which, so far, I’ve achieved).” He pegs the latter goal in part to his reaction to the argument that having children gives life meaning, which rests on an assumption he doesn’t share: “that life needs a meaning or purpose!” In one of the more rigorous and thoughtful essays, Laura Kipnis deftly argues that the so-called maternal instinct is really a “socially organized choice masquerading as a natural one.” Pam Houston questions the familiar social message that encourages women to “have it all” by juggling motherhood and a fulfilling career. Elegantly giving voice to her childlessness, she observes that “love, like selfishness and generosity, is not exclusive to one demographic; it infuses every single thing we do and are.”
Lulu Anew by Etienne Davodeau (NBM/Comics Lit) - One day Lulu runs away: from her husband, her children, her friends. Each person in her circle chronicles a part of Lulu’s tale, her new life unraveling as a mystery that spirals out like a nautilus. Her past and present are exposed as each encounter or memory is shared, opening up the lives of not only Lulu but also those around her. Skillfully unsentimental characterizations, light and earthy watercolors, and everyday goings-on reveal a familiar recognizable world, but Davodeau (The Initiates) merges these elements into an enchanting realism. Using a cinematic panel structure, Davodeau tightens or spreads out the width of each tier’s panels to accommodate pauses, reflection, conflict, and action. A raucous party’s kinetic action rat-a-tat-tats through smaller panels; wider panels are used to show wandering through the night, and the occasional full-page single panel drops the tempo to slow reflection and contemplation. In the book’s plainspoken, realistic immediacy, each element becomes absolutely essential. Davodeau’s brilliance is connecting it all into a deeply affecting story about how we seek to change our lives.
How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (Penguin) - Hayes delivers another stunner, following up his 2010 National Book Award–winning Lighthead with a collection that sees the poet thinking more deeply about perception—the public and private, the viewed and ignored. In the opening poem, readers receive a warning—“Never mistake what it is for what it looks like”—before being taken through a hall of mirrors, in each one a reflection of race, art, and the makeup of America today. Hayes cops from crime reports and q&as, charts and instructional guides, toying with form to paint the realities of life for modern black Americans. Scenes are drawn with razor sharp lines: NWA plays idly “at a penthouse party with no black people”; the ghosts of lynched slaves are invoked to haunt a “white man/ with Confederate pins.” The poems pull from sources as seemingly disparate as Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and evoke the souls of Walt Whitman and Ralph Ellison. The work hurdles between violent beauty (“I want to be as inexplicable/ as something hanging a dozen feet in the air”) and stark, philosophical truth telling (“Humanity endures because it is,/ at most, an idea”). Hayes manages not only to reassess the visual, but also to ask what we do with the information once we have it.
Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language by Clive James (Norton) - This collection of "miniature essays" on poetry by the prolific James (Cultural Amnesia), who is both a poet and an opinionated, outspoken consumer of poetry, informs and delights. James's yardstick is clear—"If only to secure a brief respite from the barely intelligible, it is forgivable to favour those poets who show signs of knowing what they are saying"—and his voice direct, often blunt: F.R. Leavis "never wrote a poem, rarely said anything interesting about one," and Lawrance Thompson's Robert Frost biography was "dud scholarship." Yet James is fair in revisiting earlier pronouncements, such as of Elisabeth Bishop's poems, which he would now give "less stinted praise." A tone of appreciation prevails, even when it comes with reservations, and there are also surprises, like citations of John Updike's "dauntingly accomplished" light verse and introductions to the work of Australian poets like Stephen Edgar, James McAuley, and Peter Porter. Linked "Interludes" preceding each essay give the book coherence rarely achieved in a collection of previously published works.
The Cherokee Rose by Tiya Miles (John F. Blair) - This well-researched, intriguing historical novel from MacArthur fellow Miles (The House on Diamond Hill) delves into the little-known story of the prosperous Cherokee slaveholders in the antebellum South. In the present day, Jinx Micco, a Cherokee-Creek part-time librarian and newspaper columnist, lives in Ocmulgee, Okla. While conducting tribal research, she looks in to a missionary school on Cherokee chief James Hold’s plantation in Georgia, called the Cherokee Rose. She discovers his manor house, now a state museum strapped for funds, is going up for auction and travels to the Cherokee Rose to learn the true fate of one student, Mary Ann Battis. Meanwhile, Cheyenne Cotterell, a wealthy interior designer from Atlanta, decides to buy the Cherokee Rose in order to set up an upscale bed-and-breakfast and get back to her Native American roots. The third protagonist is Ruth Mayes, a magazine writer from Minneapolis and Cheyenne’s childhood friend, who arrives at the Cherokee Rose to write a feature story. Readers will be taken with the way this novel blends past and present.
So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (Riverhead) - Bestselling author Ronson (The Psychopath Test) ruminates on high-profile shaming in the social-media age in this witty work. He interviews disgraced pop-science author Jonah Lehrer, fresh off a hellish apology tour, and the remorseful journalist who outed Lehrer as a plagiarist. PR executive Justine Sacco reflects on her own life, left in ruins after a single ill-conceived tweet, and elsewhere Ronson recounts how an inappropriate comment at a tech convention devolved into bedlam, with online threats of rape and death. For historical perspective, Ronson goes into 19th-century stockades, public whippings, and the theory of “group madness” popularized by Gustave LeBon, inspiration for the controversial Stanford Prison Experiments, in which ordinary students were transformed into sadistic guards. Ronson’s explorations also take him to an S&M sex club, a ridiculous “shame-eradication workshop,” and a therapy program for incarcerated women run by former New Jersey governor James McGreevey. Clever and thought-provoking stuff.
How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction by Beth Shapiro (Princeton Univ.) - Shapiro, a University of California at Santa Cruz paleogenomics researcher and “enthusiastic realist,” lays out a well-articulated argument for the “resurrection of ecological interactions” as the most appropriate goal of de-extinction research. She shows that programs with potential practical applications—such as George Church’s efforts to introduce the mammoth genes for “luxurious” hair and cold-resistant hemoglobin into an African elephant, in preparation for introducing a quasi-mammoth into Arctic habitat—make more sense than trying to clone dinosaurs or dodos in order to assuage human guilt or indulge curiosity about seeing long-dead animals. Just as importantly, Shapiro strikes a blow for scientific literacy. Her professorial voice shines in her thoughtful roadmap for practical decision making in theory-heavy science, as well as in her efforts to “separate the science of de-extinction from the science fiction of de-extinction.” To this end, she addresses ethical considerations and explains the current state of bioengineering technologies, including DNA recovery from ancient samples, polymerase chain reactions, genome reconstruction, somatic cell nuclear transfer, and germ cell nuclear transfer. Lay readers will emerge with the ability to think more deeply about the facts of de-extinction and cloning.
Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith (Knopf) - This somber memoir by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Smith (Life on Mars; Duende) reaches around the deep Christian piety of her Alabama-born mother to the author’s own questions about faith and her black identity. The work opens with the death of her mother from colon cancer shortly after Smith graduated from Harvard; then it looks back to the 1970s, when Smith and her four siblings were growing up in Northern California near the Travis Air Force Base, where her father was stationed as an engineer. The memoir is episodic; each chapter takes a memory of Smith’s youth and holds it to the light for scrutiny: her visit to her mother’s hometown of Leroy, Ala., when she was in first grade; her enrollment in a “mentally gifted minors” school that put her on the accelerated education track and led to years in majority-white schools; a lecture on sex education from her older brother Conrad; and her exchange of ardent love letters with one of her high school teachers, who was married at the time. Throughout the book, there is the strong sense that Smith’s mother’s love and faith held the family together. This is a nuanced memoir with a quiet emotional power.
Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion) - Wein returns to Africa, the setting of her Lion Hunters series, with protagonists who share an avocation with those in her award-winning novels Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. Delia and Rhoda are stunt pilots, barnstorming the American countryside in the 1920s, each with a child in tow. When Delia is killed during an air show, Rhoda commits to fulfilling their dream of raising Teo, whose father was Ethiopian, in a place where he won’t be discriminated against because of his skin color. Rhoda resettles Teo and her own daughter, Emilia, at an Ethiopian coffee plantation just as Haile Selassie takes power—and as Mussolini’s troops prepare for an invasion. The novel, which opens with the knowledge that Teo is missing, is constructed as a series of letters, school essays, flight logs, and excerpts of fantasy stories written by Teo and Emilia, all of which Emilia is sending to Selassie in a plea for help. While the conceit tests credulity, Wein brings this fascinating period in history to life with several well-engineered plot twists, lots of high-flying, nail-biting tension, and meticulous research.