This week: new novels from John Darnielle and Viet Thanh Nguyen, plus how medicine changed the end of life.
Armitage (The Declaration of Independence: A Global History), a professor of history at Harvard, succeeds in his quest to distinguish civil wars from revolutionary wars, and different kinds of civil wars from one another, in a learned book that cuts a trail through “an impoverished area of inquiry.” Starting with the Greeks and Romans and arriving in the 21st century, Armitage leads readers down long, murky paths that writers, historians, and philosophers have previously trod without making the type of lasting, satisfying distinctions he seeks. As Armitage shows, this is a surprisingly complex subject filled with much heavy speculation. But where others, including many whose thinking Armitage analyzes and quotes, employ laborious prose, his book is a model of its kind: concise, winningly written, clearly laid out, trenchantly argued. Armitage contends that failure to understand civil wars—which are normal and perhaps unavoidable—has burdened the understanding of history and policy in unfortunate ways. His conclusion is sobering: human societies may never be without this kind of conflict, and we’re better off trying to understand it than ignoring its problematic nature. It’s hard to imagine a more timely work for today. Historians, political scientists and theorists, and policy makers will find it indispensable.
Beginning on the cusp of the 2000s and spanning more than 25 years, the second novel from Darnielle (Wolf in White Van) is a slow-burn mystery/thriller whose characters are drawn together by an eerie discovery. In his early 20s, Jeremy Heldt lives with his father, Steve—Jeremy’s mother was killed in a car accident six years before—and bides his time clerking at the Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa, waiting for better prospects to arise. It’s a steady job that keeps him out of the house, though things turn weird when customers begin to report dark, disjointed, unnerving movies-within-the-movies on their rented VHS tapes. At first reluctant to become involved in tracking down the origin of the clips, Jeremy, at the urging of his acquaintance Stephanie Parsons, uncovers the tragic decades-long story behind the videos and experiences an unsavory side of Iowa that he never imagined could exist. Powerfully evoking the boredom and salt-of-the-earth determination of Jeremy, his friends, and a haunted survivor determined to redress a great loss, Darnielle adeptly juggles multiple stories that collide with chaotic consequences somewhere in the middle of nowhere. With a nod to urban legends and friend-of-a-friend tales, the author prepares readers for the surreal truth, the improbable events that “have form, and shape, and weight, and meaning.”
Kidnappings link two exceptional crime novels, Snatched and Safekeeping, by Mcdonald (1937–2008), best known for his Fletch and Flynn series. In Snatched, an incompetent thug named Spike seizes eight-year-old Toby Rinaldi, the precocious son of a foreign dignitary stationed in New York City. The folks funding Spike want to manipulate Toby’s father into killing a U.N. resolution. In Safekeeping, an orphan of aristocratic heritage, eight-year-old Robby Burnes, travels during WWII from London to Manhattan, where he’s placed in the care of cynical journalist Thadeus Lowry. While searching for his school one morning, Robby falls into the wrong hands. Both novels showcase Mcdonald’s wit, but it’s the latter that really shows his versatility. Mcdonald gleefully mixes Dickensian characters and Charles Lederer–style dialogue (Lowry explains that New York apartments are “a few rooms for which [people] pay endlessly, but never come to possess”). This compendium volume will please fans and casual readers alike who want to see the range that Mcdonald was capable of beyond his most famous creations.
Merkin’s deeply intimate account of living with clinical depression is illuminating, heartbreaking, and powerfully written. With lively prose and shrewd observations, Merkin (Dreaming of Hitler) examines the contending discourses on the potential causes of depression as she bravely exposes her lifelong struggle with suicidal thoughts and attempts to overcome them. Merkin arrives at no easy conclusions about childhood trauma or biological circumstances. She writes candidly about her lonely childhood with Holocaust survivor parents who were forced to fight their own demons. Despite her family’s wealth, Merkin and her siblings were subjected to austerity and abusive caretakers, and their mother was emotionally absent. Merkin’s exploration into her complicated yet unconditional devotion to her mother is rendered with compassion and profound perception. The book is not without humor or hope as Merkin takes readers on the journey from childhood to the present, and into her passion for literature. She writes about the past—such as the time when she was a young, aspiring writer who stayed with Saul Bellow at his summer home—into the present with the same astute eye. She also relates her experience with different treatments for depression, including the early days of Prozac and her frequent hospitalizations. Merkin eloquently blends the personal with the researched; her intellectual tenacity and emotional rawness impress as much as they entertain. This book is a wonderful addition to literature about the unrelenting battle against depression.
Each searing tale in Nguyen’s follow-up to the Pulitzer-winning The Sympathizer is a pressure cooker of unease, simmering with unresolved issues of memory and identity for the Vietnamese whose lives were disrupted by the “American War.” In “Black-Eyed Woman,” a writer is visited by the ghost of her teenage brother, who was murdered trying to save her from Thai pirates while fleeing the Vietcong. “War Years” is about a family of Vietnamese grocers in San Jose, Calif., challenged by another refugee to donate money to rebels still fighting the Communists back home. When an armed intruder invades the family’s home, the piercing irony is that their youngest son thinks it’s safe to open the door because the man is white. In “The Transplant,” Arthur Arellano is the recipient of a new liver from Men Vu, a Vietnamese man killed in a hit-and-run, whose son befriends him, then makes him complicit in his shady business selling fake designer goods. The most disturbing story is “Fatherland,” in which a man names his second set of children in Vietnam after his first set, who have fled to America with his first wife. When the American Phuong (now Vivien) visits her sister Phuong in Vietnam, Vivien reveals she is not the doctor her mother boasted she was. It is clear that author Nguyen believes the Vietnamese Phuong, more self-aware and resolute, is better off than her American doppelganger. Nguyen is not here to sympathize—“always resent, never relent,” as the anti-Communist exiles proclaimed in The Sympathizer—but to challenge the experience of white America as the invisible norm.
Orr (The Road Not Taken) collects entries from his New York Times poetry column from the past 15 years, analyzing the works of individual poets and the state of the form itself. He provides equal parts illuminating commentary and hilarious jabs at the poetry world’s insularity and pretensions. He playfully skewers Billy Collins in a verse that perfectly mimics Collins’s signature style and disparages poets who are “small-scale epiphany manufacturers.” Among his many skills, Orr displays a singular ability to capture a poet’s sensibility, comparing Stevie Smith to a figure skater whose “seemingly purposeless meanderings” somehow “cut into the ice the figure of a hanged man.” A very clever piece examining clichés of poetic “greatness” argues for Elizabeth Bishop’s more subtle powers over “thunderbolt-chucking wild man” Robert Lowell. More user-friendly pieces look at the tradition of wedding poetry, poke fun at an O Magazine feature titled “Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets,” and summarily appraise James Franco’s poetic output: “Is it, you may be wondering, good? No.” Orr is an exceptional wit and critical talent, with perhaps his most brilliant feat here being how he dissolves some of poetry’s opacity and makes it more accessible (and interesting) to a wider audience.
Schadenfreude, a Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For
Schuman structures this disarming memoir around nine German words, including the eponymous schadenfreude (pleasure derived from another’s suffering), inviting the reader to enjoy her travails. She writes with hilarious candor about herself as an entitled teenager, complete with bleached hair and goth makeup, tormenting a German host family, and later as an assertive, vegetarian, chain-smoking 20-something sharing a loft deep in postreunification Berlin. Schuman relates her “metamorphosis into monstrous Eurotrash,” complete with clashing bright separates accessorized by multiple scarves, worn year-round, to illustrate Wohngemeinschaft, the German name for an apartment shared with someone who isn’t family. The concepts behind her selected German terms may be universal, but Schuman’s application of them is uniquely Teutonic as she weaves anecdotes with lessons learned to hilarious effect. Schuman’s journeys to Germany and her pursuit of further connection with her beloved Franz Kafka bring to mind another great travel memoirist, Geoff Dyer, writing about D.H. Lawrence. As Dyer does, Schuman entertains while relating her inner conflicts, personal and cultural hypocrisies, and overblown self-delusions during her decades-long struggle with the German language and those who speak it. Schuman’s engrossing book is a feast of honesty, humility and humor, all the hallmarks of great confessional literature.
“It is one of the strengths of families to pretend that they desire what is unavoidable.” For the unnamed narrator at the heart of this concise and mesmerizing novel, what is unavoidable for his family is their fraught commitment to one another, remaining together even though (or because) it’s this very solidarity that sends everyone else away. Set in Bangalore, the family members’ situation reflects that of 21st-century India itself, as they are intoxicated by and slightly unprepared for the surge of wealth in which they find themselves. The narrator is a tenuously married young man, whose uncle has started a spice business, altering almost overnight what had been the modest, hand-to-mouth existence their family had previously known. And yet when the family moves to a new home, the narrator’s mother is unnerved by the size of the kitchen, his sister rushes into a ridiculously opulent wedding only to find herself miserable with the groom, and the narrator himself becomes aimless, spending his days at a coffee shop, once he realizes that he earns the same salary whether he accomplishes anything or not. Day-to-day, the family members drink tea, share meals, and watch one another’s every move. Shanbhag has been a prolific writer in his native South Indian language of Kannada for decades, but this firecracker of a novel is the first of his work to be translated into English. Absorbing, insightful, and altogether a wonderful read.
In her latest collection, Sikelianos (The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead) employs her joy-demanding title as more than a refrain, cleverly letting it unfold as a humanist battle cry amid the earth’s downfall. It is this search for happiness that unites the disparate topics in the book’s three sections. Sikelianos begins by writing about ordinary things: family history, meetings with a hand therapist, a daughter. Lines such as “cookies will make you happy” resound. This is joy as obsession in everyday ways. In the latter two sections, joy-as-conquest expands to animals and ecosystems. The poet’s philosophical and analytical musings merge as she delineates, in elegant staccato lines, dozens of animals that have gone extinct, largely by humans’ hands. “The last cow was killed for its excellent meat/ Had they been mistaken for sirens would the flesh have been/ so sweet,” she writes of Steller’s sea cow, a mammal gone extinct by 1768. To conclude, Sikelianos takes inspiration from Biosphere 2, a closed ecological system or, in other words, a science experiment that ostensibly rebuilds the world. “When did my ambidextrous happiness impinge on amphibians and spell apocalypse,” Sikelianos asks; a big question for herself, for her poetry (so indebted to nature), and for all creatures still seeking happiness.
The alchemy of pop culture hits gets a little more scientific in this engrossing treatise on attention grabbing. Atlantic editor Thompson delves into a grab-bag of mysteries—who decided which Impressionist painters were the greatest? Why did Cheers catch on? How did Fifty Shades of Grey become a megaseller?—and finds a discernible (if not always replicable) formula. Part of the equation, he contends, is the brain’s balancing of neophobia with neophilia: humans like to see familiar, comforting patterns emerge from novel (but not too novel) situations that pique our interest in media as different as screenplays and melodies. (Lab mice are captivated by the verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge structure of Top 40 tunes.) The other factors he fingers are sheer exposure—Seinfeld languished in the ratings cellar until it was rescheduled right after the hugely popular Cheers and finally found a viewership—and our lemming-like tendency to like whatever is already popular. Thompson gives readers a blithe, entertaining tour of the cognitive and social psychology behind our preferences, bouncing from Joseph Campbell’s doctrine of story archetypes to chaos theory, and frames it in a savvy analysis of how media technology (such as the laugh track and the like button) continually remakes tastes. This is a fun, thought-provoking take on the strange turns of cultural fortune.
Wadman, staff writer for Science, depicts the cutthroat competition, ugly politics, brilliant science, and questionable ethics that underscored the research and development, during the 1960s and ’70s, of vaccines that have protected many millions of Americans from rubella, polio, rabies, and other diseases. She provides an excellent introductory primer on cell biology to complement colorful sketches of the personalities of the pioneering biologists who produced the first live vaccines while challenging scientific tenets and medical ethics. The book is not for the squeamish. Wadman details the surgical and laboratory processes scientists used to develop vaccines, and describes the testing of vaccine prototypes on both children and adults—done mostly without their consent, in orphanages, asylums, schools, and prisons. She also documents the beginnings of the biotechnology industry in the 1980s and the concomitant rise and fall of Leonard Hayflick, who created the crucial WI-38 cell strain and entered into multi-million dollar business agreements before coming under investigation by the National Institutes of Health and getting embroiled in a much-publicized court battle with the U.S. government over ownership of the valuable cells. This is an exemplary piece of medical journalism, and Wadman makes strikingly clear the human costs of medical developments as well as the roles of politics and economics.
Warraich, a physician, writer, and clinical researcher, thoughtfully investigates the often alarming realities of death in early 21st-century America. For many it will be a “drawn-out slow burn” from a chronic illness, and where that end occurs depends largely on race and economic status. As medicine improves, it has paradoxically made death “more harrowing and prolonged today than it has ever been before.” For Warraich, the person who more than any other “would come to define modern death” was Karen Ann Quinlan, whose coma triggered a fight over keeping her on life support—a contentious battle that ended with a 1976 New Jersey Supreme Court decision that momentously introduced “the patient and the family member into medical decision making.” Around the same time, brain death was defined in a way that has made many modern deaths protracted for the patient, uncertain for the medical team, and heart-wrenching for grieving families. Dying may now include a health-care proxy, a living will, and advance directives to accommodate the patient’s wishes for their own death. as Warraich eloquently explores the act of dying, he urges the public to talk more about it and pleads for “resuscitating many of the aspects of death that we have lost.”