This week: Colm Tóibín’s retelling of the ancient Greek tale of Clytemnestra, plus Darwin's forgotten theory of mate choice.
Beaty’s engrossing debut introduces 16-year-old Sage Fowler, who is sent to apprentice with a matchmaker, Darnessa Rodelle, after her Uncle William declares her unmatchable. Sage is initially livid about this turn of events, but she realizes that the apprenticeship might be her ticket to freedom. Soon, Mistress Rodelle, Sage, and a bevy of brides-to-be set off on a monthlong journey to the capital city of Tennegol, where the girls hope to be matched, with Capt. Alexander Quinn and his soldiers as escorts. When a plot to overthrow the king is discovered, Quinn seeks to use Sage as a spy. The frippery of matchmaking provides an enticing counter to the treachery; Sage is outspoken, smart, and determined to make her own way, though all bets are off after she meets the intriguing Ash Carter. This is an action-packed, expertly plotted story, drenched in double crosses and intrigue, with an irresistible heroine and a sweet and sexy romance. A late-breaking twist gives way to a final act that will leave readers eager for subsequent books in this planned trilogy. Ages 14–up.
Benner (Machiavelli’s Prince: A New Reading) successfully rehabilitates the image of the highly quotable and oft-maligned Machiavelli, portraying him as an accessible voice of reason even when his fortunes sank during the heights of Medici influence. Historians have spent centuries debating whether to take Machiavelli at face value in The Prince, or whether to read him instead as employing irony aimed at the ruling Medicis. Benner stands firmly in the latter camp, calling Machiavelli’s infamous volume a “masterwork” of irony. Here she expertly blends Machiavelli’s words from letters, diaries, and other writings with striking passages from The Prince to prove her point. Benner includes useful information on deciphering the likeliest meanings behind his words; while Machiavelli’s unsentimental, harsh assertions may garner attention, she reveals how further inspection of surrounding passages and popular writing techniques of the time suggests that the voice employed is a false voice used to warn against the very methods it touts. Benner contextualizes Renaissance Florence and the life of the Machiavelli family, though Machiavelli’s suffering under torture and Pico della Mirandola’s complicated relationship with Savonarola receive only cursory treatment. Ideal as a companion to The Prince in university courses, Benner’s work places readers in Machiavelli’s daily life and recreates his world for academic and casual readers alike.
In this winningly diverse collection edited by librarian and author Bird (Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature), readers can sample highly entertaining entries from more than two dozen contemporary female writers, including Cece Bell, Libba Bray, Lisa Graff, Mitali Perkins, Ursula Vernon, and Rita Williams-Garcia. The short contributions burst with self-deprecating humor regarding friends, families, and the awkwardness of growing up, and they come in all formats, including short stories, exchanged letters, comics, verse, and magazine-style quizzes. Several writers mine real-life embarrassments for material: YouTuber Akilah Hughes recounts a traumatic bikini-related “wardrobe malfunction” (“My best life will be lived warm and dry, away from parties, fun, and freshman boys); Meghan McCarthy recalls stapling her own thumb at school, an injury no one seemed to know how to handle; and Adrianne Chalepah closes the collection with an instructive essay that offers advice applicable to these and other situations: “Have an unshakable sense of confidence. Even when you’re literally bleeding.” It’s certain to fit the bill for just about any child looking for a good laugh or 20. Ages 8–12.
In this charming, erudite, and often devastating metafictional novel, a writer and academic from New York carries on an intense email correspondence with an autistic musician in Germany—who may or may not be who he says he is. Set in the early 2010s and centered loosely around Occupy Wall Street, Browning’s (The Correspondence Artist) novel takes an unabashedly digressive form. The narrator, who calls herself Barbara Andersen, dances from highbrow topics (the gift economy, performance theory) to anecdotes about her family members, lovers, and friends to accounts of her ongoing “conceptual art project” (she makes ukulele covers of various pieces of music and sends them to friends and strangers). Meanwhile, she makes repeated reference to the very novel we’re reading, a move that lends her pontifications about authenticity, fictionality, and representation—stirred by her fraught relationship with the musician, Sami—a sometimes comic, sometimes unsettling edge. All this might seem like so much postmodern hot air, but the narrator has an exceptionally graceful page presence: loony and profound, vulnerable and ingenuous, Barbara acts to unify the book’s central concerns, giving its intellectual flights of fancy a palpable human pulse. Maybe nothing in this book is exactly what it seems. But the sadness, at least, is real.
Cham, creator of PHD Comics, and Whiteson, professor of experimental particle physics at UC-Irvine, take their YouTube talent to the page for this lucid and irreverent survey of the many unsolved mysteries of our universe. The authors set a brisk pace as they charge fearlessly across the shadowy terrain of modern physics and cosmology, covering gravity and fundamental particles as well as the Big Bang and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. An opening section on dark matter and dark energy explores the 95% of the universe that seems impervious to human curiosity. Continuing their journey, they ask such questions as: What are cosmic rays? Where’s our universe’s antimatter? Why does time only move forward? And just how big is the universe anyway? The book’s cast includes hamsters, evil twins, Doctor Who, and others. Black holes, the Higgs boson, and theories of everything rub elbows with Pi charts, pop culture, and Lego philosophy. Cham and Whiteson mesh comics, lighthearted infographics, and lively explanations to painlessly introduce curious readers to complex concepts in easily digestible chapters. This fun guide is just the ticket for science fans of any age.
In this riveting first novel, 17-year-old Jess Winters, a recent transplant to Sycamore, Ariz., disappears one night in 1991, leaving behind a jagged hole in the community. Eighteen years later, Laura Drennan, a new professor at Sycamore College, goes hiking and accidentally discovers human bones in a dry streambed near the campus. Word quickly spreads, and the entire town wonders if Jess's remains have been discovered. As speculation runs high, we meet the former friends, classmates, neighbors, and teachers who continue to be haunted by Jess's absence. They include her still-grieving mother, Maud Winters; Angie Juarez, a high school friend who had an unrequited crush on Jess; Paul Overton, a classmate who can't forget his behavior at her last Thanksgiving dinner; Dani Newell, the best friend who felt betrayed by her; and Stevie Prentiss, an outcast with a secret. There are also flashbacks, which ultimately reveal what happened to Jess on that fatal night. This is a movingly written, multivoiced novel examining how one tragic circumstance can sow doubt about fundamental things; as one character succinctly asks, "Do we really know anyone?" The author ends her novel with a transporting vision of community, connection, and forgiveness.
In this epic-length biography, Garrow (Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) recounts Barack Obama’s intensely political life story up to his 2008 election to the presidency, and does so without apparent political bias. Every fact, however small, is documented in the footnotes, which run to hundreds of pages. The result is a convincing and exceptionally detailed portrait of one man’s self-invention. Garrow opens with a powerfully affecting episode: the March 1980 closure of a Wisconsin Steel plant on Chicago’s South Side, where Obama later spent formative years as a community organizer. Going back to his story’s beginnings, Garrow reports extensively about Obama’s father, a Kenyan-born Harvard graduate student who’s described as brilliant but also alcoholic and abusive toward women, and Obama’s childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia. The book then explores Obama’s early romantic attachments, marriage to Michelle Robinson, involvement in polarizing and personally relevant issues of race, and political career, from state senator in Illinois to U.S. senator in Washington, where he’s immediately identified as a likely Presidential candidate. Garrow also takes care to clarify instances when Obama’s personal recollections or published memoirs differed from historical records or his associates’ memories. Casual readers may well find the level of detail here overpowering, but political history buffs will be fascinated.
Reading McCarthy's (Satin Island) first essay collection is like receiving a map of all the space that art, literature, and culture have carved out for each other. Throughout the collection, McCarthy challenges readers to scrutinize his subject matter from unusual points of view. For example, he asks whether realism is really the most “authentic” depiction of reality. “The twentieth-century avant-garde often paints a far more realistic picture of experience than nineteenth-century realists ever did,” he says. This quote is from the essay titled “Get Real, or What Jellyfish Have to Tell Us About Literature,” which, like most of the collection, dizzyingly hopscotches from reference to reference: it begins with J.G. Ballard’s Crash and continues to Ford Maddox Ford, Gustave Flaubert, Roland Barthes, Vladimir Nabokov, and Sigmund Freud (among others) before ending on Alexander Trocchi. This is the kind of book that deepens your appreciation of the subjects you’ve previously encountered, and sends you to seek out the ones you haven’t. The book is bursting with ideas and is relentlessly curious, zeroing in on topics including David Lynch, soccer virtuoso Zinedine Zidane, “the time of fiction,” On Kawara, and the “displacement” that occurs when language meets weather. It encourages you to examine contradictions and to consider that art and life and literature are all part of a sticky web that retains traces of everything.
Miéville (The Last Days of New Paris) marks the centenary of Russia’s dual 1917 revolutions with this vivid and insightful study of the journey from the February Revolution, which “dispensed breakneck with a half-millennium of autocratic rule,” to Lenin’s October triumph. Situating these eight turbulent months within the city of St. Petersburg, the czarist capital and the birthplace of the uprisings, Miéville writes that the story is “above all the story of its streets.” He leads readers through these streets and the complicated relationships between competing, and often violently opposed, groups of radicals—old and new Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, and others—from workers’ strikes through Lenin’s proclamation of socialism and Russian withdrawal from WWI. Miéville is fully aware of the horrors that followed this massive achievement but convincingly argues that the Russian Revolution’s “degradation was not a given”; its formative moments carried immense potential for every kind of human liberation, which could so easily have become the dominant force of the new order. As an acclaimed storyteller with a doctorate in political philosophy and a commitment to leftist activism, Miéville is an ideal guide through this complex historical moment, giving agency to obscure and better-known participants alike, and depicting the revolution as both a tragically lost opportunity and an ongoing source of inspiration.
Bestseller Nesbø’s exceptional 11th Harry Hole novel (after 2013’s Police) finds the alcoholic, demon-ridden, occasionally suicidal Oslo police detective in better shape than usual. Harry is “currently a sober lecturer at Police College.” In the past, he often woke up full of angst; now he’s consistently waking up feeling happy. As for his marriage to his great love, Rakel, “If he could have, he would have been more than happy to copy and paste the three years that had passed since the wedding and relive those days over and over again.” Of course, this relatively blissful state can’t last. Harry soon joins the hunt for a serial killer, whose MO—cutting the throats of his victims in vampire fashion—is similar to that of the one killer who escaped him and still invades his dreams. Meanwhile, Rakel slips into a mysterious coma. Nesbø depicts a heartbreakingly conflicted Harry, who both wants to forget the horrors he’s trying to prevent and knows he has to remember them in all their grim detail.
Pico (IRL) centers his second book-length poem on the trap of conforming to identity stereotypes as he ponders his reluctance to write about nature as a Native American. This is “fodder for the noble savage/ narrative,” he writes as ignorant people ask, “do I feel more connected to nature/ bc I’m NDN.” Other similarly problematic expectations are wryly discussed: “An NDN poem must reference alcoholism, like// I started drinking again after Mike Brown and Sandra Bland and Charleston/ I felt so underwater it made no sense to keep dry.” As an extension of this dilemma, Pico poses questions about what is natural human behavior: Is it natural for a football player to assault his girlfriend? Is colonialism natural? What about the feeling one gets while listening to Beyoncé’s “Mine”? Pico’s alter-ego “Teebs” remains in constant motion, leaping from the dentist’s office to drag queen karaoke night to the movie theater: “I’m an adult I only let myself have/ candy at the movies/ so I’ve been going to the movies A LOT.” In making the subliminal overt, Pico reclaims power by calling out microaggressions and drawing attention to himself in the face of oppression, “the way the only thing more obvious than your body/ is leaving yr shirt on in the pool.”
The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us
Prum, a professor of ornithology at Yale, provocatively questions whether virtually all biologists have misunderstood a core concept first proposed by Charles Darwin. As Prum explains, the vast majority of evolutionary biologists consider sexual selection, in which females choose males with whom to mate, to be a type of natural selection. Male ornamentation, such as peacock tail feathers, arises as a means to advertise health and virility. Using his own research on tropical birds as a base, Prum follows Darwin in positing that such ornamentation has no such signaling value and arises instead for its aesthetic value—a value determined solely by the females of a species. Presenting persuasive supporting data while clearly articulating much about the scientific process, Prum maintains that a correct reading of sexual selection indicates that it is a potent mechanism for females to develop sexual autonomy. By controlling various aspects of male behavior through mate choice, Prum argues that females of many species have reduced the incidence of rape while increasing male sociality. He also offers hypotheses for the evolution of the female orgasm and homosexuality while embedding the concept of feminism solidly within a biological framework. Prum crosses many boundaries while provoking readers to consider Darwin’s ignored idea as a new paradigm.
Former publisher and editor Rosen (The Third Horseman) tackles a dazzling chapter of modern medical history in this chronicle of the discoveries that opened the age of antibiotics and gave humankind its first effective tool to fight back in an “eons-long war” with infectious disease. It was a breathtaking leap of innovation. Rosen deftly recounts the early work of such pioneers as Louis Pasteur, who established the germ theory; Robert Koch, who linked a microorganism to a single disease; Paul Ehrlich, producer of the world’s first synthetic chemotherapeutic agent; Gerhard Domagk, whose lab found the first successful antibacterial drug; and Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered penicillin. Rosen posits that 19th- and 20th-century scientists’ most enduring contributions might have been institutional, in the forms of biological laboratory development and massive corporate funding from such giants as Merck, Pfizer, and Squibb that fueled the revolution in medicine. “Every triumphal discovery” in the dawning age of antibiotics, Rosen eloquently notes, “has been followed, sometimes in a matter of months, by a reminder that the enemy in this particular war may lose individual battles, but that the war against it is essentially eternal.” Rosen’s thoughtful, scholarly, and engaging history is a powerful testament to this fight.
Tóibín’s 11th novel retells the ancient Greek tale of Clytemnestra, who kills her husband Agamemnon to avenge the death of their daughter Iphigenia, and her son Orestes, who kills her in turn to avenge his father’s death. The narrators of the novel are Clytemnestra, Orestes, Orestes’s sister Electra, and Clytemnestra’s ghost. Clytemnestra begins by recalling that, for one fleeting moment at Agamemnon’s army encampment when eight-year-old Orestes was on his father’s shoulder, and 16-year-old Iphigenia in her father’s embrace, they seemed the ideal family. Then Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia (so he could sail off to war). Clytemnestra plots revenge. Back home at the palace, she seeks help from wily Aegisthus, who, though a prisoner, wields extensive power. When Agamemnon returns, Clytemnestra greets him with a hot bath and a knife in the throat. Later she discovers Aegisthus has kidnapped Orestes to strengthen his hold over her. Orestes takes refuge on a farm, while Electra remains at the palace haunted, powerless, craving payback. After brother and sister reunite, Orestes kills their mother. The novel ends with the appearance of Clytemnestra’s ghost and the birth of a baby. Tóibín refreshes a classic in part by imagining Orestes’s backstory with his friend Leander in a key role and in part by depicting in stark prose vibrant settings, such as palace hallways where shadowy figures conspire. The result is a dramatic, intimate chronicle of a family implosion set in unsettling times as gods withdraw from human affairs. Far from the Brooklyn or Ireland of his recent bestsellers, Tóibín explores universal themes of failure, loss, loneliness, and repression.
This slim novel strikes a strong chord. Clayton Byrd revels in playing the blues harp (harmonica) with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and other blues musicians in New York City’s Washington Square Park, and he longs to play his own solo: “Twelve bars. That was all.” Cool Papa is Clayton’s favorite relative and ally, and his sudden death throws Clayton into an emotional spiral, especially as his mother’s unresolved feelings toward her father cause her to sell off his possessions. Newbery Honor–winner Williams-Garcia (One Crazy Summer) creates a memorable cast and sketches complex, nuanced relationships, especially between Clayton and his mother, contrasting Clayton’s closeness with his grandfather to the complicated absence of Clayton’s own father. Clayton’s grief causes dustups at school and church, and the stakes and tension rise considerably as Clayton meets a band of teenage subway performers, who get him to join their show then steal his grandfather’s treasured hat. It’s a holistic portrait of a family in pain, a realistic portrait of grief and reconciliation, and a reminder that sadness and loss are wrapped up in the blues. Ages 8–12.