This week: new books from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jennifer Egan, and more.
In this skillfully constructed and conceptually arresting book-length poem, poet and artist Bervin (editor, with Marta Werner, of The Gorgeous Nothings) probes the intersections of language and biological form. The poem’s form and structure is modeled on silk’s DNA structure. Narrated from the perspective of a silkworm, Bervin’s sardonic lines challenge the artificial distinctions between text and the material world: “AREYOUSURPRISED/ IQUOTEAPOET// DONTBE/ WE INVENTEDLANGUAGE.” For Bervin, the “MULBERRYLEAF” and its “NECTARFLOOD” represent the original language, as their luminous particles cannot exist without a framework, a grammar, to give them order. Bervin reminds readers that, to understand these careful and intricate constructions, one must learn to see on a smaller scale: “THEEGGS/ STARTINCUBATING// WHENTHEBUDS/ ONTHEMULBERRY/ ARETWO/ CENTIMETERSLONG.” The work also operates as an exercise in listening and measurement; given the close proximity of the words, readers must discover the divisions between concepts and cadences for themselves. Yet the sparseness, brevity, and economy of the lines create a textual terrain filled with silence. Bervin’s inspired interdisciplinary work is one of her finest achievements.
Brooklyn-born Chast follows up her emotional National Book Award finalist memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant with an expanded version of a guide to Manhattan she made for her college-bound daughter, which enlightens readers on the finer and sometimes obscure points of what makes New York City a vibrant and often loony landscape. Multiple aspects of the city are lovingly examined and lampooned, with a matter-of-fact intimacy that could only come from a native New Yorker, from the bad—why not to get on an empty subway car—to the grand—the expanses of Central Park. Observations and advice on making one’s way through the city’s diversions are mixed with the quirky character that oozes from the metropolis’s every concrete pore. It’s all delivered with obvious and knowing affection and captured with a keenly observant pen.
National Book Award-winner Coates (Between the World and Me) collects eight essays originally published in the Atlantic between 2008 and 2016, marking roughly the early optimism of Barack Obama's presidency and the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. The selection includes blockbusters like "The Case for Reparations" and "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," which helped to establish Coates as one of the leading writers on race in America, as well as lesser-known pieces such as his profile of Bill Cosby (written in late 2008, before the reemergence of rape allegations against Cosby) and a piece on Michelle Obama before she became first lady. The essays are prefaced with new introductions that trace the articles from conception to publication and beyond. With hindsight, Coates examines the roots of his ideas ("Had I been wrong?" he writes, questioning his initial optimism about the Obama Administration) and moments of personal history that relay the influence of hip-hop, the books he read, and the blog he maintained on his writing. Though the essays are about a particular period, Coates's themes reflect broader social and political phenomena. It's this timeless timeliness--reminiscent of the work of George Orwell and James Baldwin--that makes Coates worth reading again and again.
Bankruptcy and fraud run through the ostensibly wholesome business culture of small-town America in this intimate study of a Depression-era building-and-loan failure. Echols (Hot Stuff), professor of history at the University of Southern California, recounts the 1932 bankruptcy of the City Savings Building and Loan Association of Colorado Springs, Colo., a thrift run by her grandfather Walter Davis. The failure wiped out thousands of depositors and sparked scandal when Davis fled and some of his victims plotted to kidnap his daughter (Echols’s mother, Dorothy) to compel his return; he hanged himself in jail after his capture. Drawing on family archives, Echols combines lucid exposition of the rickety economics of the building-and-loan industry with a rich social history of its decline from cooperative nonprofit institutions that financed working-class home buyers to laxly regulated, for-profit venues for predatory lending and Ponzi schemes. She styles Davis as a darker—in her telling, truer—version of building-and-loan icon George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life: not a populist hero, but a greedy social climber seeking wealth and status through reckless—then fraudulent—gambles with other people’s money, enabled by the anticollectivist ethos of his conservative community. Echols’s absorbing portrait makes Main Street the rival of Wall Street for callous corruption.
Pulitzer-winner Egan's splendid novel begins in 1934 Brooklyn as Eddie Kerrigan struggles to support his wife and two daughters, one of whom is severely disabled. He finds work as a bagman, ferrying bribes for a corrupt union official. One day he brings his healthy daughter, Anna, to the Manhattan Beach home of Dexter Styles, a nightclub owner with underworld partners. The 11-year-old can't comprehend their business, but she senses that the two men have become "friends." By the time Anna is 19, Eddie has inexplicably vanished and America is in the Second World. Working a dull job inspecting ship parts at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Anna seizes the opportunity to become the first female civilian diver there. Around the same time, a second encounter with Dexter Styles raises hopes that he can help untangle the mysteries of her father's disappearance. As the stories eddy through time, Egan makes haunting use of shore and water motifs to balance dense period detail and explore the liminal spaces—between strength and weakness, depth and surface, past and future, life and death—through which her protagonists move. More straightforwardly narrated than some of Egan's earlier work, including the celebrated A Visit from the Goon Squad, the novel is tremendously assured and rich, moving from depictions of violence and crime to deep tenderness. The book's emotional power once again demonstrates Egan's extraordinary gifts.
Four women from a colonialist interstellar empire are sent to a remote planet to civilize the alien natives, in the latest SF tale from Goldstein (The Oven). As they get to work making a home in the forest, setting up a laboratory and school and digging latrines, an air of danger hovers over them. Maybe it’s the mystery of what happened to the failed previous mission, which left behind a ravaged base and no clues. Maybe it’s the presence of the planet’s only other nonnative resident, who exudes a certain magnetism as the only man in their new world. Or maybe it’s the planet itself, which draws the women into its liquid depths and haunts them with alien fevers and strange dreams. Goldstein’s fluid black-and-white art, echoing illustration styles from European woodcuts to Japanese hell scrolls, is a far cry from the attempted realism of most science fiction comics. It gives the story a fairy tale’s sublimated horrors and unpredictable psychic depths. It’s another remarkable graphic novel from a creator whose approach to SF consistently defies expectations.
Dighton Rock, a 40-ton boulder located in southeastern Massachusetts, remains little known outside New England, but the origins of its elaborate inscriptions were for several centuries a subject of impassioned debate among European and American intellectuals. Canadian historian Hunter (The Race to the New World) writes that the rock has reflected “the prejudices and ignorance” of its interrogators ever since white settlers first encountered it in the late 17th century. Puritan intellectuals believed that it was a relic of some culture that had existed before that of the current indigenous inhabitants; throughout the 18th and 19th centuries various scholars attributed the carvings to the ancient Phoenicians, the medieval Norsemen, and early 16th-century Portuguese explorers. Only amateur ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft insisted that the inscriptions were the work of New England indigenes, but his claims failed to win academic support due to their problematic methodology and a far broader issue: Dighton Rock interested only a small intellectual circle, but conclusions about its provenance disrupted white Americans’ ideas about their right to formerly Indian territories. Hunter’s deeply researched, heavily detailed study raises fascinating questions about white Americans’ understandings of Native American culture as well as their own sense of identity and nation.
Machado creates eerie, inventive worlds shimmering with supernatural swerves in this engrossing debut collection. Her stories make strikingly feminist moves by combining elements of horror and speculative fiction with women’s everyday crises. Machado builds entire interior lives through sparse and minor details, turning even litanies of refrigerator contents and free-association on the coming of autumn into memorable meditations on identity and female disempowerment. Queerness permeates these tales, shaping the women and their problems, with a recurring focus on the inherent strangeness of female bodies. These bodies face an epidemic of inexplicable evaporation (“Real Women Have Bodies”), linger as distorted masses beyond weight-loss surgery (“Eight Bites”), or gain the ability to hear the thoughts of actors in porn (“Difficult at Parties”). “The Husband Stitch” makes explicit the hidden sexuality of creepy urban legends. In “Especially Heinous,” Machado rewrites 12 seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, riffing on the titles as she imagines Benson haunted by victims, Stabler beset by domestic drama, and both competing with more efficient doppelgangers. Machado’s slightly slanted world echoes our own in ways that will entertain, challenge, and move readers.
McGregor’s unforgettable novel begins with a 13-year-old girl’s disappearance from an English village, and then tracks the village through the following years, as teenagers become adults, babies are born, people grow old and die, and couples get together and separate while what happened to the girl remains a mystery. Rebecca Shaw and her parents are visiting the village over Christmas, staying at the barn conversion they rented the previous summer, when Rebecca vanishes during a walk on the moors. Residents, police, and mountain and cave rescue teams search but find nothing. As time passes, the case stays open and unsolved. Local teenagers who knew Becky better than they admit to parents or police share memories of her among themselves while having sex, drinking alcohol, doing drugs, and growing up; the school custodian is arrested on child pornography charges; a successful man returns to the village temporarily; an unhappy wife leaves permanently; the vicar collects confidences; one day the potter smashes his pottery. Twins born early in the novel grow up to hear the story of the missing girl, now part of a village culture marked by dark undercurrents and occasional moments of light. McGregor portrays individuals and the community as a whole, across seasons, in mundane scenes and moments of heartbreak, cruelty, and guilt. Close-ups of flora and fauna are set against a landscape of reservoirs, dens, and caves, the village hall, the pub, and the flooded quarry. This is an ambitious tour de force that demands the reader’s attention; those willing to follow along will be rewarded with a singular and haunting story.
Miles (Tales from the Haunted South), professor of history at the University of Michigan, illuminates an “alternative origin story” of this much-studied city, which was “born of the forced captivity of indigenous and African people.” Detroit prospered from trade in animal skins rather than plantation agriculture, but it was black men who played a dominant role in the transportation of these furs across New France; meanwhile, indigenous women became a sexual resource plundered by French colonists. Miles gracefully recounts Detroit’s first century as it passed from French to British rule. The transition so antagonized local indigenes that in 1763 the Ottawa leader Pontiac launched a rebellion that took the British colonial military months to suppress. Miles emphasizes that even had the Ottawa succeeded, the situation of Detroit’s 1,500 slaves might not have improved. Neither the British nor the fledgling U.S. brought them release, and as nonplantation states turned against chattel slavery, Detroit’s whites and some Native American inhabitants continued to engage in the domestic slave trade. Despite slowly expanding rights, people of color could hope at best for a “hard-won and consistently compromised freedom.” Miles places Detroit’s history in a more expansive frame than its 20th-century boom and decline, emphasizing racial inequalities far in advance of the Great Migration.
Okeowo, a staff writer at the New Yorker, offers an evocative and affecting portrait of contemporary Africa with four narratives featuring subjects from war-torn countries who are battling fundamentalism and medieval barbarity where they live. Okeowo, an American raised in Alabama by Nigerian parents, spent five years living in Africa and reporting from across the continent. The people she highlights include a couple from Uganda who met as teenagers when they were both kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army; a Mauritanian activist waging a semisuccessful, but lonely, antislavery campaign; a dual account of a Nigerian girl who escapes from Boko Haram and a government worker who starts a vigilante task force against the group; and a women’s basketball team in Somalia that persists—and often thrives—despite deep prejudice and death threats against female athletes in that country. Through these narratives larger issues emerge, such as how ineffectual governments depend on vigilantes to protect their citizens from rebel groups such as Boko Haram, or the way families suffer intergenerational trauma when one or more members have violent experiences. In this memorable debut, Okeowo’s in-depth, perceptive reporting gives a voice to the extraordinarily courageous—and resilient—women and men fighting malevolent ideologies and organizations in their native countries.
This debut essay collection from novelist Spufford (Golden Hill) has many strengths, chief among them the diversity of topics covered. Antarctica is discussed in the section entitled “Cold” and The Jungle Book is discussed in the section entitled “Printed.” Each of the book’s five sections receives a one-word title, with “Sacred” notably including an essay defending Christianity against the “Puritanism” of the new atheists. “Red” and “Technical” respectively examine the ephemeral moments when the Soviet political experiment and British rocketry programs seemed poised for success. Spufford’s interests range so widely that it’s hard to imagine them coalescing, but what holds the 37 selections together is his skeptical yet wondering engagement with science—and his original, incisive voice. It’s hard to pick the best essays. Contenders include the lyrical “Ice,” with its invocations of Shelley and Hans Christian Andersen, “Dear Atheists,” a deft and witty rebuttal to Richard Dawkins, and “Robinson’s Mars,” an analysis of what Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy says about utopian fiction. The essays challenge one’s imagination, are never repetitive, and show a welcome breadth of mind in an era of narrow specialization. Spufford fits no cookie-cutter definition: he is journalist and scholar, science lover and Christian, word lover and poet, and his writing satisfies deeply.
A metastasized New York straddles the turn of the 20th century in Wallace’s magisterial follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning Gotham (coauthor, with Edwin G. Burrows). Wallace, the director of the Gotham Center for New York City History, takes the 1898 municipal consolidation of New York’s five boroughs, which made it the world’s second-largest city, as a peg for an exploration of a new socioeconomic order based on consolidated corporations—usually headquartered in Manhattan—that tamed chaotic markets and made New York the capital of capitalism and epicenter of such industries as insurance, biscuits, and musical theater. Wallace traces this theme in the city’s struggles to manage explosive growth; zone forests of skyscrapers; dig a subway system; forge a regulatory state to solve health, housing, and economic crises; and unify its immigrant masses into a new kind of Americanism. It’s a tumultuous, often violent story pitting Republican plutocrats and Progressive reformers against corrupt Tammany pols, WASPs against Catholics, strikers against sweatshop owners, cops against gangsters, militant socialists against reformists, and Greenwich Village bohemians against everything holy. Miraculously, Wallace shapes this sprawl into a coherent, engrossing narrative that’s nicely balanced between historical sweep and colorful detail. The result sets a standard for urban history, capturing both New York’s particularities and its protean dynamism.
New York City is a land of architectural ghosts, and Wertz (Drinking at the Movies) is a skilled and perceptive documentarian who here combines two of her talents—cartooning and urban exploration—to create a dense, informative package filled with her audacious personality. Wertz’s method for uncovering these ghosts involves a lot of wandering, sharp eyes, and tons of research that she translates into meticulous drawings of structures throughout the city, often in a “then-and-now” format to document changes not only to the structure itself, but to the culture of the city. Wertz tackles the pneumatic tube system with the same gusto as she does the life of serial arsonist Lizzie Halliday. In presenting the life of the city, Wertz captures change as the most important constant trait of New York City, with a vivid eclecticism that makes this an indispensable guidebook to places lost and found.