This week: inside the "alien" brain of an octopus, and Siri Hustvedt's thought-provoking A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women.
In this intriguing and melancholy chronicle, Boston Globe columnist Beam (Gracefully Insane) traces the rise and fall of the friendship between Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov. The two men met in 1940, when Nabokov’s cousin pleaded with Wilson, an eminent critic and writer, to help Nabokov, a recent émigré from Russia to the U.S. Among other things, Wilson commissioned reviews from Nabokov, helped him secure a Guggenheim Fellowship, and introduced him to prominent editors. Over the years, the two spent holidays together with their families, exchanged affectionate correspondence, and even collaborated on a translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri. By the time Wilson died in 1972, it had all fallen apart. The main cause was Wilson’s scathing review of Nabokov’s 1,895-page, hyperquirky translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (one of his many criticisms was Nabokov’s choosing the obscure term “sapajous” over the logical translation choice, “monkeys”), which began a protracted war of words between the two. Beam’s book evokes the strangely satisfying sensation of witnessing smart people bickering over seemingly small matters. It also provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse, full of anecdotal ephemera, of how Wilson and Nabokov interacted and why. But the more lasting sensation is the bittersweetness of this portrait of a fallen friendship—at its height, Nabokov wrote to Wilson, “You are one of the few people in the world whom I keenly miss when I do not see them.”
A complex mystery involving seven deaths in one night kicks off Church’s excellent sixth novel featuring enigmatic North Korean intelligence operative Inspector O (after 2012’s A Drop of Chinese Blood). O has been living in exile in Yanji, China, with his cynical nephew, Major Bing, who heads that city’s office of the Ministry of State Security. Bing doesn’t want any part in the investigation of the unexplained deaths of three elderly men at a noodle shop, two prostitutes behind a dim sum joint, a female tourist in a new Mongolian tearoom, and a well-dressed man in an upscale hotel restaurant. Contrary to Bing’s wishes, police reports of the eatery-related fatalities have reached his ministry’s headquarters in Beijing, forcing him to take a role. Bing must also fend off Yanji’s corrupt mayor, who hopes to use Bing’s failure to solve the case to get rid of him. Some unexpected turns lead to O taking part in an operation in Europe. The pseudonymous Church, himself a former spy, makes all the plot developments chillingly plausible.
Race, gender, love, and sexuality are portrayed beautifully and humanely in this previously unpublished collection of stories from groundbreaking African-American filmmaker and civil rights activist Collins, who died in 1988 at the age of 46. Drawing on Collins’s career as a filmmaker and playwright, the stories incorporate stage directions, dramatic monologues, and camera-eye perspectives that frame the racial tension of the 1960s with both frankness and tenderness. “Exteriors” details a failing relationship from the outside, set up as a film scene through a lighting designer’s eye, while “Interiors” gives us the inner monologues from the perspectives of the couple in a failed marriage. The title story follows a group of interracial couples as each member explores his/her own identity while trying to fit in with the identity of the other. In the gripping “Only Once,” a woman recalls her thrill-seeking lover and his final act of recklessness. “The Happy Family” seems happy on the surface, but a closer look by the family’s friend reveals the cracks that broke the family apart. Full of candor, humor, and poise, this collection, so long undiscovered, will finally find the readers it deserves.
Deftly blending philosophy and evolutionary biology, Godfrey-Smith (Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection), an Australian philosopher of science, uses his passion for cephalopods to address “how consciousness arose from the raw materials found in living beings.” Comparing vertebrate consciousness and intelligence with that of cephalopods is not as odd as it might seem, because “cephalopods are evolution’s only experiment in big brains outside of the vertebrates.” Godfrey-Smith demonstrates that octopuses are constructed from a dramatically different plan than vertebrates, with each of their arms having the ability to act and sense their environment semi-autonomously from their central brains. This striking difference raises intriguing questions about the nature of communication within organisms, as well as about the meaning of intelligence. Godfrey-Smith couples his philosophical and scientific approach with ample and fascinating anecdotes as well as striking photography from his numerous scuba dives off the Australian coast. He makes the case that cephalopods demonstrate a type of intelligence that is largely “alien” to our understanding of the concept but is no less worthy of wonder. He also ponders how and why such intelligence developed in such short-lived creatures (they generally live only a few years).
Greenberg’s haunting first graphic novel, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, made her an instant critical darling. In her follow-up, she returns to Early Earth, a three-mooned world of myth and magical realism, for a collection of feminist stories about “bad husbands and murderous wives and mad gods and brave women who don’t take shit from anyone.” In a frame story borrowed from The Thousand and One Nights, two women hold off a rapacious man by telling stories within stories, usually about other women getting themselves in and out of danger. Greenberg combines elements from fairy tales, children’s books, and folklore from around the world to create an original but teasingly familiar mythos. Above all, it’s a book about the power of storytelling, populating Early Earth with a secret society of storytellers, a grove of memory trees, and women treasuring literacy in defiance of a stern bird god. Greenberg’s primitive woodcut-style illustrations suggest folk art from another planet.
In this erudite collection, novelist Hustvedt (The Blazing World) explores philosophical questions central to the humanities using research from other disciplines, such as biology, feminist theory, and neuroscience. The questions relate to the self, epistemology, and art and literature, among other things. In the middle portion of the book, in an essay that ought to become canonical, Hustvedt examines the problematic underpinnings of current scientific fads such as evolutionary psychology and computational theory of mind. Her lengthy exercise in phenomenology provides a dense, succinct overview of the mind/body problem, which “has haunted Western philosophy since the Greeks.” The questions that preoccupy Hustvedt are the questions of a novelist, but they take consciousness itself as their subject: Where do ideas come from? How do stories get created? What is reflective self-consciousness, and how is it formed? What role do imagination, emotion, memory, and the unconscious play in this thing we call mind? The book conveys the wide range of Hustvedt’s reading as she focuses on the interstices between people; between disciplines; and between concepts such as art and science, truth and fiction, feeling and perception. The research is sound and the scholarship engaging, and the exacting prose turns humorous and almost warm when Hustvedt incorporates her personal reflections, exhibiting, as she says of the artist Louise Bourgeois, “a quick mind, interested above all in its own contents.”
Mimosa has inherited an ultra-sensitive nose. Besides being able to smell people’s moods, she and her mother are skilled at mixing scents to create personalized aphrodisiacs for lovelorn clients. Growing weary of her cloistered life as one of the last aromateurs on Earth, Mimosa enrolls in public school but discovers that her private life and the high school social scene don’t blend as smoothly as the ingredients in her potions. The trouble begins when Mimosa’s algebra teacher requests an elixir that falls into the hands of the mother of popular soccer player Court Sawyer, who is, in turn, on his way to winning Mimosa’s heart. In this tantalizing book of contrasts—science and magic, ancient tradition and contemporary life, and seclusion and exploration, among them—Lee (Outrun the Moon) introduces a cast of memorable characters while tracing the external and internal conflicts of an engaging heroine. The book, a playful departure from Lee’s historical fiction, opens the door to many possible outcomes, and readers will be on the edge of their seats to find out how Mimosa’s snowballing dilemmas are resolved.
Iran’s early 20th-century political upheavals drive this absorbing debut novel about a working-class couple and their gifted, socially ambitious son. The novel, by Iranian author Reza, opens in the early 1920s, with young newlyweds Talla and Sardar Amir traveling from their native Qamsar to the suburbs of Tehran, where Sardar has established himself as a shepherd. For the couple, who are illiterate and unworldly, the migration proves emboldening but also disorienting. Sardar is gripped by the “contained suffering that went by the name of exile,” and Talla bristles at unfamiliar class hierarchies and fluctuating customs regarding chadors. They later move to Shemiran, where they raise a son, Bahram, who begins “breaking with [the] continuity” of his parents’ provincialism. Under a mandate from Reza Shah, Bahram begins attending school at six and quickly finds himself to be an avid pupil. After receiving his village’s first high school diploma, Bahram goes on to attend the prestigious Tehran University, where he becomes involved in the National Front, a nationalist party. Reza, by weaving intimate domestic details with explications of Iran’s shifting fortunes (the nationalization of the country’s oil and the overthrow of Mosaddegh feature prominently here), succeeds in imbuing the Amirs’ story with stirring sociopolitical importance. She is uncommonly generous to her characters, and Talla is a formidable, hard-to-forget heroine.
Acclaimed science writer Sobel (A More Perfect Heaven) casts much-needed light on the brilliant and determined women behind two historic revolutions in astronomy: one scientific, one professional. In the mid-18th century, astronomers employed human “computers” to scan glass photographic plates and perform calculations. Only the Harvard College Observatory, directed by professor Edward Pickering, hired both men and women as computers. The women there—including Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne—earned far less than their male counterparts but were eager for the work. As Sobel explains, it was the only way they could do science. Their research led to both the creation of a catalogue of stars still in use today and groundbreaking discoveries in stellar composition, motion, evolution, and a reliable way to calculate interstellar distances. Sobel knows how to tell an engaging story, and this one flows smoothly, with just enough explication of the science. She also reveals the long hours the women worked and their constant search for funding as well as their triumphs of discovery and the eventual acknowledgment of their achievements by their peers and public. With grace, clarity, and a flair for characterization, Sobel places these early women astronomers in the wider historical context of their field for the very first time.
British historian Tallis portrays nine-day queen Grey (1536/1537–1554) as a determined, devout, and clothes-loving teenager whose intellect, youth, and religious fervor perpetuate her mythologizing centuries later. During the dawn of English Protestantism, Grey vigorously discussed religious tenets with both Catholic and Protestant theologians, garnering praise for her understanding and later inspiring her inclusion in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Tallis humanizes Grey, showing her willfulness—she refused to corule with her husband, whose father placed her on the throne—as well as her desperation to please her remarkably unwise parents, whose ambition cost Jane her freedom and life. Popular myths and earlier historical interpretations of key events receive fresh analysis aided by diligent research (a minor complaint is an odd reference to Henry VIII’s “divorce” of Anne of Cleves—it was technically annulled). Tallis’s clear writing and well-paced narrative heighten the story’s climactic and tragic ending. She also pays careful attention to the relationship between Mary I and Grey, noting warm, long-standing family ties and similarities in religious fervor—albeit for different denominations—and key differences in how each approached her claim to the throne. Tallis successfully champions Jane’s reign as legitimate and elucidates her role as a key player in the battle for England’s official church.
Ward (Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South), chair of the history department at Spring Hill College (Ala.), celebrates the nation’s first rural community health center and its groundbreaking mission to provide medical care and be “an instrument of social change” in the impoverished Mississippi Delta region. In this densely packed chronicle, Ward covers the growth of the Tufts-Delta Health Center from a small health clinic in 1967—opening amid skepticism from both black and white communities—to its unique role as a medical center and organizer of programs addressing rampant malnutrition, poor maternal and child healthcare, unsafe drinking water and sewage disposal, and hunger. Woven throughout are vivid portraits of the clinic’s founders, including H. Jack Geiger, the “father of community health”; community organizer John Hatch; environmental services director Andrew James; and farm expert L.C. Dorsey. Ward argues that the center’s true measure of success is its enduring legacy as one of the first of “more than 1,200 community health centers in the U.S.” Ward shows that “in both practical and symbolic terms, the Tufts-Delta Health Center was a radical assault on both the medical and social status quo”—and that story is as urgent today as it was a half century ago.