This week: a bibulous Southern preacher's perverse quest for sainthood, plus how human perception is changing.
Sophia by Michael Bible (Melville House) - Bible’s short, comic novel, which relates a bibulous Southern preacher’s perverse quest for sainthood, is full of small miracles. The Reverend Alvis T. Maloney is a Rabelaisian figure, the “lazy priest of [the] town’s worst church,” whose irrepressible appetites lead him into distinctly unholy alliances with his parishioners and the Holy Ghost, about whom he has recurring erotic dreams that would make John Donne blush. Whether he is a man more sinned against than sinning is an open question, but his desire to follow his own unorthodox righteous path is undisputed. The plot is almost secondary, though there is an excess of it: a cross-country chess tournament tour with Eli, a prodigy and Maloney’s “redneck Virgil”; an attack on a suburban house involving a hot air balloon; and a game of wits with a blind bounty hunter chasing Maloney and his pregnant lover from “the great Southern Bohemia” to New York City. Bible shrewdly pairs his maximalist comic style with a minimalist form. The novella is composed of short, paragraph-long scenes that are variously poetic, bawdy, and zany.
Agincourt: The Fight for France by Ranulph Fiennes (Pegasus) - Fiennes (Cold), a renowned polar explorer and British military veteran, brings a distinctive point of view to his recounting of the 1415 Battle of Agincourt, further underscored by the astounding number of participants to whom he’s related. He begins with a flowing introduction to the period between the 11th century Norman invasion of England and the completion of Henry V’s French campaign (which concluded with the Battle of Agincourt), followed by an insightful analysis of the strategy and logistics of the latter. Fiennes’s even-handed descriptions of late medieval violence form a solid foundation for his occasional comparisons between Agincourt and various 20th-century war scenes. A nice collection of images of key figures helps readers navigate the various bouts of infighting on both sides, and illustrations of arms and armor give readers a feel for the martial technology of the time.
The Absolution by Jonathan Holt (Harper) - British author Holt’s masterly sequel to 2014’s The Abduction concludes his Carnivia trilogy with a bang. Italian banker Alessandro Cassandre, whose unusual portfolio consisted of sophisticated credit default swaps and tax planning for charitable institutions, has been murdered in a manner suggesting Masonic ritual. The case falls to Venetian carabiniere Kat Tapo, who soon finds that her probing into the financier’s affiliations isn’t universally welcomed by her government colleagues. Meanwhile, Kat’s close American friend, 2nd Lt. Holly Bolland, is determined to learn whether her father’s connection with a notorious U.S. covert spy operation in Italy was the cause of his sudden illness. And genius Daniele Barbo, creator of the website Carnivia, who survived being kidnapped as a child in Italy, is preparing to relinquish his interest in Carnivia. Holt manages to make the risks posed by the growing movement toward smart devices intelligible and chilling, bringing all the pieces together plausibly and enabling newcomers to immediately identify with the multifaceted leads.
We Have the Technology: How Biohackers, Foodies, Physicians, and Scientists Are Transforming Human Perception, One Sense at a Time by Kara Platoni (Basic) - “Nature is amazing,” but “couldn’t it be more so?” asks science journalist Platoni in this enthusiastic review of research into human senses and ways they might be improved. Platoni converses with scientists who seek to learn how humans perceive the world by examining the nervous system and genes. Her chapters on taste, smell, touch, and emotion are wholly engrossing. Humans, it turns out, are able to taste more than the usual palate of sweet, bitter, salt, sour, and umami; and smell, memory, and culture are almost too integrated to tease apart. Equally surprising is the fact that the brain often treats physical and emotional pain identically. Platoni describes how today’s crude eye and ear implants restore function to those without it; in the future an eye implant might detect infrared or ultraviolet light, and its sensors could be hooked up to distant cameras or a rewind button. Similarly, an artificial ear could be designed to hear much higher frequencies or echo-locate.
The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler's Fight for His Mother by Ulinka Rublack (Oxford Univ.) - In this luminous study, Rublack shows that Johannes Kepler (1571–1630)—revered astronomer, defender of Copernicus, and a beacon of the early scientific revolution—was also a man of his time. She details the events of Kepler’s life using copious regional records as well as his collected works. The focus of the book is the 1615 trial for witchcraft of Kepler’s mother, Katharina, which Rublack could have spun as a matter of science vs. superstition, but instead she gives readers a nuanced look at a world in which most people, including Kepler, believed that witches existed. Local citizens of the Duchy of Württemberg, in the Holy Roman Empire, carefully analyzed the evidence at Katharina’s trial, and Kepler and his siblings went to her defense, but family relations became strained as the trial dragged on. Katharina’s adult children were torn between love for their irascible mother and fear for their own impoverishment and loss of status. Rublack superbly conveys the tension among the Keplers as well as the personalities of the accusers and officials, who were not single-handedly determined to convict a witch.
The Verdict by Nick Stone (Pegasus Crime) - This propulsive legal thriller from Thriller Award–winner Stone (Mr. Clarinet) centers on the arrest and impending trial—seemingly a certain prosecutorial slam dunk—of multimillionaire hedge funder Vernon James, a poor West Indian immigrant’s son, for the murder of the young blond whose strangled body is found in his luxury suite at the London hotel where only hours earlier he accepted an award from the Hoffmann Trust, a liberal umbrella organization, as “Ethical Person of the Year.” James’s predicament should come as catnip to Terry Flynt—at 38 hanging on by his fingernails to a job as a lowly legal clerk—who blames James, his former childhood best friend, for getting him booted out of Cambridge and starting him on the downward spiral of booze and depression that nearly destroyed his life. But, as Flynt is stunned to discover when he’s tapped to work on the defense team, his feelings are significantly more complicated, especially once the evidence he starts to uncover suggests that James might be innocent.