This week: a novel about the controversial Little Albert experiment, and Tom Bissell travels to the tombs of the apostles.
Bakewell (How to Live) brilliantly explains 20th-century existentialism through the extraordinary careers of the philosophers who devoted their lives and work to “the task of responsible alertness” and “questions of human identity, purpose, and freedom.” Through vivid characterizations and a clear distillation of dense philosophical concepts, Bakewell embeds the story of existentialism in the “story of a whole European century,” dramatizing its central debates of authenticity, rebellion, freedom, and responsibility. Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty all strut and fret across the stage, with cameos from Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Iris Murdoch, among others. Casting his shadow over all is Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps existentialism’s most famous face, and beside him Simone de Beauvoir, whose feminist masterpiece The Second Sex, was as “revolutionary in every sense” as Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Heidegger’s Being and Time.
Bissell (The Disaster Artist) journeyed to the tombs of the apostles, finding some sticky with kisses and others bone-barren. His account of his travels is an excellent cornucopia of history, exegesis, travelogue, biography, analysis, corrective, and hilarity. Bissell, a scholar but not a believer, pairs some disciples (Philip and James) and adds one not of the original twelve (Paul) in this quirky and learned Christology. Each chapter covers an apostle’s life story and legend, comparisons of the apostle’s appearances throughout the Gospels, and places from Italy to India where relics beckon pilgrims. Bissell includes questions, definitions, traveler’s tales, and sprightly interviews with the pilgrims, translators, and docents he meets, and these bolster his Bible commentaries; his accounts are always grounded in his meetings with scholars and church fathers. Even if readers don’t care about the apostles, Bissell’s style is compelling on its own. His unforced humor is delightful, his wealth of research grounds this formidable apostolic project, and his crafty rhetoric and irresistible charm make it a must-read.
Brown’s 1938 story, best known from a 1958 version illustrated by Remy Charlip, describes a group of children who discover a dead bird. Robinson (Leo: A Ghost Story) pictures a verdant urban park, where four children—one dressed as a red fox, another wearing blue fairy wings—frolic with a big gray dog. The sad news arrives on the first page: “The bird was dead when the children found it.” The frowning children gently lift the small brown bird, finding “it was still warm and its eyes were closed.... But there was no heart beating. That was how they knew it was dead.” They solemnly bury the bird under the leafy trees, improvise a mourning song, and surround a stone marker with summer flowers, behaving “the way grown-up people did when someone died.” Even as the children imitate grief in response to the wild bird’s death, they genuinely grieve the joy that has been lost: “You’ll never fly again,” they realize. Robinson’s illustrations hint at how the improvised funeral enables the children to acknowledge impermanence, his close-ups capturing their concentration as they assemble the memorial. Brown takes a direct approach to a difficult subject, suggesting how community rituals provide solace.
Psychologist Corbett (Boyhoods) recounts, with riveting clarity and deep humanity, the 2011 trial of Brandon McInerney for fatally shooting his 15-year-old classmate Larry King during their middle-school English class in Oxnard, Calif., in 2008. But as he brings careful precision and a trained clinical eye to the desperate, painful facts of the shooter and victim—Brandon, white, from a broken and violent home, was 14 at the time of the shooting and beginning to exhibit white supremacist loyalties; Larry, mixed-race, removed from his adoptive home on charges of abuse, had just begun to identify as transgender—Corbett also excavates the chilling and dangerous beliefs that led the defense to construct a persuasive story of a “normal” boy pushed over the edge of self-control by a flamboyant “queer.” He draws out the suspense of the courtroom drama by intertwining his professional knowledge of adolescents, gender, and trauma with empathetic portraits of the people involved, and he recounts his personal struggle to understand the case as it unfolds. Corbett depicts these events as a story in which emotion outweighs logic and ethics, in which exhibiting gender variance is a worse crime than hatred, and in which the human mind makes sense of something confounding through denial and erasure. Profound and disturbing, this heartbreaking testimony of our culture’s worst fissures suggests that understanding is the only way to heal.
Gripping storytelling and meticulous research undergird this outstanding ethnographic study, in which Desmond (On the Fireline), an associate professor of sociology at Harvard, explores the impact of eviction on poverty-stricken families in Milwaukee, Wis. Living first in a rundown trailer park with predominantly white tenants and then in an African-American inner-city neighborhood, Desmond conducted fieldwork by observing and asking questions of his neighbors; later, he collected extensive data about eviction specifically in the private rental market. The book reveals the concentrated suffering of people repeatedly faced with the loss of their homes. He shares the stories of Lamar, a double amputee raising adolescent boys; Scott, who tries to conquer his heroin addiction and return to his nursing career; single mom Arleen, her sons, and their cat, Little; and five other families. Desmond identifies affordable housing as a leading social justice issue of our time and offers concrete solutions to the crisis.
Flanagan’s highly impressive debut transposes the corrupt world of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential to the Cape Cod of 1957. Trouble appears for Lt. Bill Warren, a single father who oversees the police force in Barnstable, in the form of Capt. Dale Stasiak of the Massachusetts State Police, a crew-cut giant of a man who has been assigned to look into the disappearance of a young boy in Truro. Stasiak makes no bones about annexing the case from the local police, with the grudging support of district attorney Elliott Yost. When Warren learns of Stasiak’s bigfooting, he takes it as a personal insult. Why is Stasiak resisting Warren’s efforts to investigate a gambling and loan-shark ring that seems to have spread its tentacles Cape-wide? Why, when the corpses of other young boys are discovered near surrounding towns, isn’t Stasiak alarmed that a serial killer may be running loose? And how does disgraced Father Boyle fit into the picture?
In a contemplative tour of the year, Fogliano and Morstad sensitively yet strongly evoke seasonal experiences like standing at the ocean’s edge, anticipating sweater weather, and uncovering acres of mud beneath melting snow. The poems—roughly a dozen per season, and all given dates—range from just a few lines (“just like a tiny, blue hello/ a crocus blooming/ in the snow” for March 22) to longer reflections: the July 10 poem that lends the book its title (“when green becomes tomatoes/ there will be sky/ and sun/ and possibly a cloud or two,” it begins) reads like it could have been a standalone companion to Fogliano’s If You Want to See a Whale. Working in gouache and pencil, Morstad (Swan) creates an appealing, multiracial cast of children in scarves and swimsuits, pajamas and parkas, while helping highlight the way that small things—a sprouting plant, a falling leaf—can herald big changes.
The lonely city of the title is teeming with painters, filmmakers, writers, and thinkers. In her new book, Laing (The Trip to Echo Spring) creates a “map of loneliness,” tracking its often-paradoxical contours in her own life as a transplant to New York City and traces how loneliness can inspire creativity. The central figures of the book—Henry Darger, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, and David Wojnarowicz—were all “hyper-alert to the gulfs between people, to how it can feel to be islanded amid a crowd.” By focusing on four artists (others, like Billie Holiday, also make appearances), Laing’s writing becomes expansive, exploring their biographies, sharing art analysis, and weaving in observations from periods of desolation that was at times “cold as ice and clear as glass.” She invents new ways to consider how isolation plays into art or even the Internet (which turns her into an obsessed teenager, albeit one who calls the screen her “cathected silver lover”). For once, loneliness becomes a place worth lingering.
Grouped under three headings, the 13 stories in this outstanding entry in Akashic’s noir series capture the gloomy underside of Sweden’s capital, portraying the hopelessness of those trapped in what Larson and Edenborg in their introduction call the city that “devours your soul.” The first section, Crime and Punishment, focuses on what the editors call “places of immense spiritual corruption,” as scathingly illustrated by Åke Edwardsson’s “Stairway from Heaven,” which consists of the bitter musings of a housing-project hit man. The second section, Fear and Darkness, presents the horrors of aging in suburbia, most notably in Inger Frimansson’s horrifying “Black Ice.” The highlight of the final section, The Brutality of Beasts, is Carl Johan De Geer’s “The Wahlberg Disease,” set in the city’s center, “a sea of ruins.”All stories unsparingly testify to the degradation through human vicissitude of idealistic social planning.
An early candidate for the various best-of lists for 2016, this superlative achievement from Liew (The Shadow Hero) tells the story not only of Singaporean artist and comics creator Charlie Chan Hock Chye, but of Singapore itself. It hardly matters, of course, that the titular character is an invention of Liew’s, because his story is so real that some early reviewers assumed Liew’s protagonist had to be a real person. Chye’s story, from his youthful beginnings and early career as an artist to his later reminiscences, is fascinating in itself, but Liew’s inclusion of fabricated newspaper clippings, old sketches, and mixed media works—and even an occasional photo collage purporting to show us first-hand evidence of Charlie’s life—is riveting. As Chye’s life is revealed, so is the history of Singapore, a tumultuous sweep that is mirrored in the history of cartooning. Make no mistake: this multilayered book is a masterpiece.
Filled with wordplay and moments of wry observation and revelation, this contemporary coming-of-age-novel follows the trials of a big-hearted teen who suffers some hard knocks. The opening sequence, depicting a violent brawl between high school senior Cliff Sparks and his father, will draw readers in, but Cliff quickly admits the incident is a lie. “Do I have your attention? Good.... Nobody wants to explore new lands with an untrustworthy guide. But I’d hate for you to leave so soon after we’ve met,” he tells readers. Lubar (Sophomores and Other Oxymorons) goes on to depict more everyday yet heart-wrenching examples of Cliff’s victimization by bullies, rejections by girls, and awkward errors in judgment, all while juggling two jobs to replenish his dwindling college fund, which his father has dipped into since losing his job. Cliff’s humorous perspective on his predicaments doesn’t lessen their sharp impact, and readers will breathe a sigh of relief when Cliff is viewed to be worthy of at least one girl’s love. However, contentment is short-lived—the novel throws a final strong punch that will warrant a re-examination of events to separate fact from fiction.
Rosalie Rayner—wife of real-life behaviorist pioneer John Watson, assistant in his controversial 1920 Little Albert experiment, and coauthor of his now- discredited parenting guide—is the confessional narrator of Romano-Lax’s scorching new novel. After graduating from Vassar in 1919, Rosalie attends Johns Hopkins, where she works in the psychology lab under Watson, a handsome, gregarious advocate of conditioning over introspection. In their best-known collaboration, they expose a baby to rats, loud noises, and other stimuli, eliciting fearful responses. The baby that Watson chooses for this experiment—a stolid, passive nine-month-old referred to as Albert—seems the perfect subject to prove almost all behavior is conditioned. Rosalie does not question Watson’s ideas or methods as they embark on a scandalous affair. Eventually Watson divorces his first wife, marries Rosalie, and becomes an advertising executive, while Rosalie becomes a stay-at-home mom disconnected from her husband’s ideas—in favor of schedules, against demonstrations of affection, as promoted in their book on child rearing. Sticking to historical fact, imagining only what history omits, Romano-Lax depicts Rosalie as a modern woman of the 1920s: bobbed hair, driving a Stutz Bearcat, career-focused until her devotion to a controlling behavior-control expert confines her to a traditional role. Romano-Lax sheds a harsh yet deeply moving light on feminism and psychology, in theory and in practice.